Republican Senator Bob Corker (TN) stated earlier this month that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and Homeland Security Secretary-turned White House Chief of Staff John Kelly are the only ones who “separate our country from chaos.” A strong case can be made that Jim Mattis does exactly this, and Rex Tillerson at least provides a level of reason and rationality compared to some of the other potential occupiers of his office. John Kelly, however, does not serve to separate the country from chaos, but rather serves to encourage it.
As a fellow Marine, John Kelly has earned an esteemed status among officers and enlisted in the Marine Corps. Serving alongside Jim Mattis and current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, John Kelly has forged his senior-level leadership in our country’s fiercest fires in Iraq and Afghanistan in this generation. His place among the honored General’s was made even more solid by the unthinkable sacrifice his family made in losing their son, Marine First Lieutenant Robert Kelly in Afghan combat in 2010.
However, John Kelly also holds opinions, ideologies, and worldviews that are more in line with the Trump inner circle than was previously thought. Take, for instance, his offhanded remark earlier this year to Trump at the Coast Guard Academy graduation. When the President was gifted a saber for his presence at the ceremony, Kelly was recorded saying, “You can use that on the press.” This was not merely a quip at humor, however. Kelly in 2010 delivered a speech to the American Legion – made more famous by the fact that it was delivered days after his son’s battlefield death – where he made mention of the fact that, “we are winning [this war], but you wouldn’t know it because the successes go unreported, and only when something does go sufficiently or is sufficiently controversial, it is highlighted by the media elite that then sets up the ‘know it all’ chattering class to offer their endless criticism.”
In those remarks, he first makes a claim that seems to suggest that the U.S. is having magnificent successes that are completely clouded by a media that is ignoring achievement to report on negatively-skewed stories. Yet, the last I checked, we are still fighting a war in Iraq after that country could not actually stand up by itself following the U.S. withdrawal. The last I looked, we are increasing troops in Afghanistan to combat an ever growing and continuing Taliban and extremist threat. Given the current conditions within both countries, it appears to anyone observing that there was a lot of failure and fiasco to be reported by the media after all. Kelly said earlier this month, in a critique of the White House media from high on his podium, that the media needed get better sources, but the media did appear to get right and accurate the spiraling disaster that was unfolding in Iraq and Afghanistan, dating back to the Rumsfeld era.
The second note pulled from Kelly’s remarks in 2010 is that he stated that the media is an elite group (and he means elite in the most condescending definition of the term) which “sets up” a certain class of people, whom he refers to as “know it alls” who only offer criticism to the debate. This name-calling of both the media and educated professionals is an additional problem of the Trump-era politics that seems to shun and patronize the importance of a free and separate media institution (also known as the fourth estate of a democracy) and the importance of continuing education to contribute to individual growth and societal advancement. It is a dangerous journey when educated professionals and the inherent value of educational growth is viewed as a privileged group that is out of touch with truth and is laughingly unimportant. John Kelly’s few, but blistering, interactions with the media thus far have been in lock step with this ideology that is not new to his psyche.
The final aspect of concern regarding Kelly does not stem from his 2010 speech. Rather, it arises from his taking on the position of Chief of Staff in the first place. The 2016 campaign was, in many ways, a setback for the advancement of civil-military relations and understanding in a country that has an ever-growing divide between those who serve and those who do not. Retired General Officers, including Michael Flynn and John Allen, came out on different sides at the party conventions with disgustingly political speeches. John Kelly has continued in this modern tradition of mixing military service with politics by taking on a by-its-nature purely political office, that of White House Chief of Staff (contrary to Jim Mattis’s position at the Defense Department, who has an appropriate portfolio for a retired general). John Kelly has no choice but to advocate for, defend, and carry out the President’s policy, but this time regarding highly controversial policies that alienate at least half the electorate who do not support Trump. Although Kelly does indeed appear to hold many of the same principles as the President (to the extent Trump has principles), Kelly’s “driving of the ship” will lengthen the civilian-military gap and make people question the actual extent of military impartiality.
Bob Corker stated that John Kelly was one of those in the administration separating our country from the implied chaos that would be engulfing the national scene. While he may be bringing a Marine Corps-like order to the President’s daily schedule and meetings, he is nevertheless Trumpian in more ways than not, and that does not make him one of the grown-ups in the Trump White House.