Opinion

The Trumpification of John Kelly

What happened to the honorable public servant who was going to clean up the White House? He spent too much time with his boss.

It might be hard to remember after a four-week period in which we've had two government shutdowns, a report alleging that the president of the United States, who recently dismissed various entire countries as "shitholes," once paid a pornographic actress six figures to keep quiet about an affair, and the trailer for what will almost certainly be the worst Star Wars film yet — but a little more than six months ago John Kelly was the man who was supposed to bring order to the Trump White House.

This was back in the dog days of last summer, before The Scaramucci Post was one of America's most promising journalistic ventures and the man known as the Mooch was casually ringing up reporters to threaten them with decapitation. Decent family men like Sean Spicer were quitting their executive branch jobs in order to enjoy their remaining years as laid-back Costco dads before we fought a nuclear war with North Korea.

Into this mix came the four-star general, a Herculean pragmatist who would clear the Trumpean stable of excrement, figurative and, for all we knew, otherwise.

Like General James "Mad Dog" Mattis and Rex Tillerson, Kelly was supposed to be one of the adults in the room. As White House chief of staff, he would never be able to turn Trump into a conventional Mitt Romney Republican, the kind of rich white guy who only grossly insults half the country's population based on their income rather than their national origin, but he would keep some of the president's excesses in check.

Then roughly two weeks into his tenure, Trump responded to a white supremacist terrorist attack by pointing out, that like racists, anti-racists also have their bad qualities. It was the lowest point of his presidency at the time, but it wasn't Kelly's fault, you could argue. Something like this was waiting in the wings, and it could just as easily have happened under his predecessor. Meanwhile, if reports are to be believed, Kelly had begun to get a handle on Trump's media consumption, limiting our commander in chief's daily access to Alex Jones and Breitbart. So maybe things were looking up.

Since then Kelly and Trump have had many adventures. They've gotten out of more scrapes than they can count. They weren't all even Trump's fault. Did anyone before last week even remember the time when Kelly put his foot in his mouth by suggesting that the Civil War could have been prevented by a "compromise"?

Time flies. Here we are in February 2018 and before anyone could even settle down to enjoying Nancy Pelosi and Rand Paul's tag-team budget temper tantrums last week, there was Kelly responding to reports that Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary, had abused two of his ex-wives with a statement about how the accused was "a man of true integrity and honor." In case it wasn't absolutely clear that Kelly did not think photographic evidence of domestic violence was very serious, he added, "I can't say enough good things about him."

Never mind the principles here. For all we know Kelly is privately a vicious misogynist. From a strictly cynical "I don't care about spousal abuse but hey, it's something the kids are worked up about" point of view, what did Kelly have to lose by issuing a terse statement that did not vouch for Porter? Even the most mealy-mouthed, wait-for-the-facts-to-get-out press release would have been acceptable to most reasonable observers. It cannot even be argued that he was blindsided here. It has been reported that Kelly knew about these credible accusations for months, an account that he was begging staff to contradict on Friday.

Now people are calling for Kelly to follow Porter's lead and resign. My guess is that it will probably happen, not least because Trump himself is rumored to want him out.

How this is compatible with the president's wistful response to questions about Porter ("We absolutely wish him well") is a brain puzzle no one should bother solving. Here is what I want to know instead. Nothing in Kelly's biography before his first day at the White House suggests that he is anything other than a calm, rational, level-headed public servant. Even the president's fiercest critics praised the decision. So what happened? Is 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. contaminated with some kind of brain plague unknown to science, a severely debilitating neurological disease that attacks the rational faculties of the affected and turns him into, well, a person like Trump? I can think of no other explanation.

There is a case to be made that the president has terrible instincts when it comes to choosing his allies. Certainly he is more comfortable than most of us would be in the company of sociopaths and conspiracy theorists. But Kelly was not a Stephen Bannon-type hire. He just became one somehow.

Kelly's successor, assuming there is one, should disregard the president's strictures about looking nice and wear a full-on DuPont Tychem hazmat suit to work. They are available in white and yellow.

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