The West Wing Under John Kelly: From Disorder to Chaos

John Kelly was supposed to fix things. In July, the retired four-star Marine general left his position as United States Secretary of Homeland Security to serve as President Trump’s Chief of Staff, a position often deemed the hardest job in Washington. Kelly was to replace Reince Priebus, who had held the position of ‘gatekeeper’ to the commander-in-chief during the first six months of the administration, overseeing one of the most chaotic and scandalous beginnings of any new presidency. The constant drama during those early days will fill many volumes, but Kelly’s appointment was supposed to prevent any further damage to the office. It was hoped he could use his experience to bring military-style discipline into the West Wing, taming the Twitter-obsessed leader and tempering those around him. Kelly’s tenure, however, has proven to be just as catastrophic as what came before.

Kelly’s hawkish approach to immigration landed him his appointment as DHS Secretary. While defending enforcement officials in his department, the hardliner once told lawmakers in Congress to “shut up and support the men and women on the front lines”. Kelly brought structure and intellect to helm the President’s incoherent but aggressive immigration policy that had helped lead him to victory during the campaign. Even Trump saw value in bringing a leader seemingly as apparently strong as Kelly on board. The administration needed someone who could put an end to any further scandals and certainly not someone who would might create any of their own.

Such a plan did not last long, however. Kelly first faced major criticism in October when, in the aftermath of the tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, he blamed the US Civil War on “a lack of compromise”. The statement quickly made headlines, leaving many bewildered and asking how a compromise on slavery ought to have been reached. He chased this scandal with another, this time defending the Confederate leader Robert E. Lee as “an honourable man”. Although this textbook racism did not seem out of place within the Trump administration, it took many by surprise that it came from Kelly, who was expected to rein in the divisive and dangerous rhetoric emanating from the White House.

Kelly’s “honourable” comments regarding General Lee echoed earlier this month when Kelly used the same language to defend senior White House aide Rob Porter after allegations of his domestic violence surfaced. Kelly rode Porter’s wave of denial until further allegations arose and brutal photographic evidence of Porter’s ex-wife were published. Kelly, however, was aware of these allegations for several months. They were unearthed during routine background checks and were deemed significant enough to result in the denial for Porter’s security clearance. Porter served in one of the most important roles in the West Wing, where he was responsible for controlling and sorting the documents that landed on the President’s desk. How he was able to carry out such duties without adequate security clearance no one can say, but Kelly obviously trusted Porter enough to keep in him on.

This most recent scandal raises serious questions about Kelly’s credibility, but he has certainly helped stop the bleeding in some circumstances. Almost immediately after taking his oath to serve the President, Kelly removed Director of Communications Anthony Scaramucci, who had already embarrassed himself after just a week on the job by exposing major rifts between West Wing personnel. A few months later, Kelly fired Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart editor who helped fuel Trump’s support in the alt-right. Bannon’s radical anti-establishment philosophy proved to be unstable once in power, and often put him at odds with Republican lawmakers, paralysing any potential progress on policy.

It cannot be said how much potential damage Kelly might have prevented, however. For all we know, Trump’s published tweets and public statements could be the tamest and most coherent from a long roster of alternatives that Kelly prevented from seeing the light of day. Even if this were the case, however, it does not explain Kelly’s own blunders and oversights. The longer Kelly serves the President, the more the two seem to merge into one. John Kelly does not seem to be bringing order to the West Wing, but rather is aiding the development of his boss’s most toxic and dangerous behaviour.