For better than a year, John Kelly played the role of chief of staff for Donald Trump, during which time he was the designated the “adult in the room” who would supposedly keep Trump’s bad-baby behavior under control. That went so well. Kelly, who spent the six months before that running Homeland Security and turning the Border Patrol into a meaner and also a meaner force, was apparently unhappy during those White House days. But he could keep quiet for the sake of the children … that he put in cages.
Since then, Kelly has sat out any number of outrages. But it seems that in the post-impeachment world, as Trump is systematically disassembling the vestiges of the Justice Department and sending a key witness in his impeachment proceedings, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, off to somewhere so that “the military can do what they want” to him, Kelly has reached the point of being concerned enough to speak up—just like everyone else who leaves Trump’s White House and speaks out only when it can’t do a damn bit of good.
During his time sitting outside Trump’s office door, Kelly was often described as angry at some Trump policy, or frustrated by his inability to control Trump’s chaotic behavior, or infuriated by Trump’s willingness to listen to anyone who praised him, even when they didn’t have a clue about the facts. But the only effect of that anger seemed to be that for much of his time in office, Kelly was something less than a figurehead. He and Trump seemed to rarely talk, and policies were made without his knowledge or presence.
Now that he’s borrowed Susan Collins’ wagging finger of concern, Kelly has quite a few items on his list. As The Atlantic reports, Kelly spoke to students and guests at Drew University in New Jersey for over an hour, laying out concerns aboutTrump’s personal relationship with Vladimir Putin and how it shaped U.S. policy with regard to Russia. Trump’s personal relationship with Kim Jong Un and how it shaped U.S. policy with regard to North Korea. Trump’s intervention in military discipline to pardon service members accused of war crimes. Trump’s absolute fixation on building a border wall and how it shaped policy with regard to Mexico and Central America.
On that last point, Kelly also expressed concern about about the language and tactics Trump used in his immigration policy, including calling all immigrants rapists. Which was very much not an apology for his role in the whole system.
However, one topic on which Kelly was particularly vocal was Trump’s actions against Vindman. Kelly praised the Army colonel, saying that Vindman did just what he was supposed to do when he reported his concerns about Trump’s call to the Ukrainian president. As The Hill reported, Kelly painted Vindman’s actions as just what would be expected of a good officer. “He did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave,” said Kelly. “He went and told his boss what he just heard.”
Kelly described what Trump has said was a “perfect call” as a fundamental change in the relationship between the United States and Ukraine. Until that point, starting during the Obama administration, the United States had a policy of supporting Ukraine in its fight against Russia. With that call, Trump predicated that support on getting a personal political advantage.
“We teach them, don’t follow an illegal order.” said Kelly. “And if you’re ever given one, you’ll raise it to whoever gives it to you that this is an illegal order, and then tell your boss.”
But, of course, John Kelly is just one of “Trump’s generals”—the group that Trump used to give himself a semblance of credibility during his first days in office. All of them have since been disposed of, and Kelly’s words are likely to have all the sting of a tongue-lashing from James Mattis, or … Pufnstuf? Something like that.
Trump doesn’t need generals anymore. Or laws. But he may learn something from Kelly—that it’s time to get rid of the idea of an illegal order. When it comes from Trump, it can’t be illegal.