On Sunday, the LA Times published an interview with outgoing chief of staff (and man who probably thought he’d seen it all after serving nearly five decades in the military), John Kelly.
Frankly, I can’t decide whether it’s notable or not, but it’s trending, so I suppose it’s worth mentioning on a day when the news flow is likely to be non-existent.
Kelly is characteristically tight-lipped and understated, or at least the quotes the Times chose to publish come across that way. Still, the interview paints a predictably disconcerting picture about the inner-workings of the Trump White House.
John will depart on Wednesday, when Mick Mulvaney will take over on an “acting” basis, although at this point it’s clear that when it comes to the Trump administration, “acting” is synonymous with “permanent” for most empty posts. Nobody wants to be associated with what will, at best, go down in history as the low point for America’s democracy, and at worst, still has the potential to devolve into something wholly dangerous.
Most of the soundbites from Kelly (i.e., the actual quotes) don’t tell us anything we didn’t already know, but what really sticks out is the extent to which he appears to believe that his most important achievement as chief of staff was preventing a disaster. Here is the Times summarizing:
In the phone interview Friday, Kelly defended his rocky tenure, arguing that it is best measured by what the president did not do when Kelly was at his side.
It was only after Kelly’s departure was confirmed Dec. 8, for example, that Trump abruptly announced the pullout of all U.S. troops from Syria and half the 14,000 troops from Afghanistan, two moves that Kelly had opposed.
Kelly’s supporters say he stepped in to block or divert the president on dozens of matters large and small. They credit him, in part, for persuading Trump not to pull U.S. forces out of South Korea, or withdraw from NATO, as he had threatened.
It is astonishing that we are now forced to ponder a reality where the “success” of the people closest to the President is measured not by the tangible positive outcomes they facilitated by helping to transform good ideas into policy, but by how many hypothetical disasters they managed to help prevent.
That same theme permeates the entire interview. For instance, Kelly notes that he at least tried to provide Trump with the kind of intelligence that a president would need to make momentous decisions. To wit:
It’s never been: The president just wants to make a decision based on no knowledge and ignorance. You may not like his decision, but at least he was fully informed on the impact.
I’m not sure that’s comforting. In fact, there’s a sense in which it’s even worse than a scenario where Trump was just shooting from the hip. What Kelly is saying (without actually saying it explicitly) is that Trump is making bad decisions even after being apprised of the consequences. That’s the very definition of irrational.
In another testament to just how low the bar has been set, Kelly offers the following with regard to how far Trump pushed the autocrat envelope:
Trump sometimes pressed his advisors on the limits of his authority under the law, often asking Kelly, “‘Why can’t we do it this way?’”
But Trump never ordered him to do anything illegal, Kelly stressed, “because we wouldn’t have.”
“If he had said to me, ‘Do it, or you’re fired,’” Kelly said he would have resigned.
Again, that is wholly unsatisfying if it’s meant to somehow allay fears that Trump is unconcerned about the constitutional limits of his power. Those quotes amount to Kelly telling America that Trump often asks if he can simply flout democracy, and the only saving grace is that he didn’t threaten consequences if a decorated general refused to do something that is manifestly illegal.
But really, what’s the difference between threatening to fire people if they don’t commit actual crimes and making life so miserable that they eventually quit? Spoiler alert: there is no real difference. And if you think for a second that Mick Mulvaney is somehow going to defend law and order more stridently than John Kelly, well then I don’t know what to tell you.
Just to drive that point home, the Times reminds you that Kelly’s tenure in the Marines spanned a mind-boggling 46 years “from Vietnam to the rise of Islamic State”. He was, quite literally, the longest-serving general in the U.S. military upon finally retiring in January 2016.
That’s who was in charge of protecting America (and the world) from Trump’s worst impulses.
Now, that job falls to Rick Moranis’s character from Ghostbusters.
Remember, Mick is so spineless that he couldn’t even bring himself to push back against Trump’s reckless fiscal policies despite the fact that he (Mick) is one of the most notorious budget hawks in recent political history. So spineless is Mick that he actually went in front of lawmakers earlier this year and defended spending tens of millions of dollars on a military parade. This is the same Mick who, when Obama was president, famously said “we really believe you can’t spend money you don’t have.” Now, we’re supposed to believe he’s going to push back when Trump wants to do something like pull the U.S. out of NATO? That is wildly implausible.
I’m not sure what else there is to say here. It’s getting harder and harder to find the right mix of adjectives and dark humor to convey how increasingly precarious this situation is becoming.
Kelly’s LA Times interview stops short of the delivering the kind of outright rebuke of Trump that America got from Jim Mattis’s resignation letter, but the overarching message is the same. Trump, whether because he’s drunk on power, senile, a hopeless moron or, more likely, a combination of the three, is an autocrat.
I continue to believe his autocratic lean is largely attributable to stupidity, both on his part and the part of his supporters, but the end result is the same: There’s a despot in the White House.