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Michael A. Cohen

John Kelly was supposed to be ‘the adult in the room.’ He’s anything but

From left, White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, with White House chief of staff John Kelly, and White House staff secretary Rob Porter, in the Oval Office of the White House, September 2017. Porter resigned from his post Wednesday after two former wives publicly accused him of domestic abuse. NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

John Kelly is the perfect Donald Trump staffer — he’s a bad person who is bad at his job.

While this might seem like a harsh judgment, consider the evidence.

This week, the White House has been embroiled in controversy, largely of Kelly’s own making, over the handling of staff secretary Rob Porter’s tenure inside the administration.

Kelly had known for months that Porter had been credibly accused of abusing both of his former wives and had been denied a permanent security clearance because of the allegations. Yet that didn’t stop Kelly from keeping Porter on and actually praising him, earlier this week, as “a man of true integrity and honor” when the allegations surfaced. Kelly even urged Porter not to resign. Kelly only changed his tune after pictures emerged of Porter’s first wife with a black eye.


This is hardly the first time that Kelly, in his mere six and half months as chief of staff, has done and said bad things. In the fall, Kelly slandered congresswoman Frederica Wilson with an accusation of publicly grandstanding at an event opening a federal office building in Miami in 2015. When confronted with evidence that his claims against Wilson were untrue, Kelly said he would never apologize for his comments. He referred to a traitorous Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, as an “honorable” man, and, echoing his boss’s language about neo-Nazis who marched this summer in Charlottesville, Va., said, about a civil war fought over slavery, “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.”

Just this week, he attacked so-called Dreamers who had failed to register for the DACA program as being “too lazy to get off their asses.”


From a policy standpoint, Kelly, as secretary of Homeland Security, was the point man for both the Trump administration’s so-called Muslim ban and its increasingly cruel and sadistic efforts to deport law-abiding undocumented immigrants. Under his short tenure at DHS, there was a 40 percent increase in deportation arrests.

In his public speeches, Kelly eagerly adopted the public line, pushed by Trump, that immigrants represent an existential threat to American security, suggesting in April that the nation is “under attack from criminals who think their greed justifies raping young girls at knifepoint, dealing poison to our youth, or killing just for fun.” Last month, he appears to have played a crucial role in torpedoing a possible deal on DACA because of his own hard-line and racist views toward nonwhite immigrants.

But what truly defines Kelly as a top Trump staffer is his striking incompetence. Lest we forget, Kelly was brought on as chief of staff to be “the adult in the room.” The former four-star Marine general would impose discipline on a dysfunctional and chaotic White House, or so the argument went.

Rather than serve as a moderating force in the White House, Kelly has — over and over again — enabled and even encouraged Trump’s worst instincts. A smart chief of staff would have sought a way to minimize the fallout from Trump’s toxic comments on neo-Nazis, his apparent disrespect for a Gold Star widow, and his disparagement of undocumented immigrants and sub-Saharan countries. Yet each time, Kelly has fanned the flames.


And now it’s been revealed that he allowed a staffer who had credibly been accused of spousal abuse, and was susceptible to blackmail, to remain in a highly sensitive position, with regular access to the president. It might be Kelly’s worst blunder yet.

In keeping Porter on in his position, Kelly ignored an obvious land mine waiting to explode inside the White House. Once Porter’s abuse record became public, once it was revealed that a staffer who was unable to get full security clearance was nonetheless granted full access to whatever documents crossed the president’s desk, including highly classified material, it should have been immediately clear that there was no way Porter would be able to stay in his job.

Kelly’s belief that Porter could stay and fight the allegations was delusional. That he didn’t do everything possible to quietly move Porter aside and avoid yet another self-inflicted scandal shows remarkably poor judgment. How could Kelly be so clueless?

Kelly failed his boss and left the White House vulnerable to withering criticism over how Porter was able to keep his job. If Trump can’t rely on his chief of staff to protect him from political scandal – and not actually make the scandal worse — what good is he?

Before going to work for Trump, Kelly had a solid reputation for competence and probity. After more than a year in Trump’s orbit, he has come to be seen by many as a racist and incompetent staffer who has enabled a racist and incompetent president. This will be his ultimate legacy, even if the Porter scandal is what finally forces him out of the White House. It’s a worthwhile reminder that to work for Donald Trump is to surrender not just one’s integrity but also one’s reputation.


Or perhaps the takeaway from Kelly’s disastrous tenure is that going to work for Trump doesn’t just expose one to greater scrutiny and force people to defend the indefensible, but rather reveals one’s true character.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.