John Kelly and the Dangerous Moral Calculus of Working for Trump

Anyone in politics or government who works for Donald Trump, whether on
the payroll or in some other supporting role, is forced to make a
sacrifice. Working for Trump means that one’s credibility is likely to
be damaged, so there is a kind of moral calculation that any Trump
supporter must make: Does working for him serve some higher purpose that
outweighs the price of reputational loss?

There is a hierarchy of justifications for backing Trump. At the bottom are
the spokespeople and purely political officials who are almost instantly
discredited, because they are forced to defend the statements of a
President who routinely lies and manufactures nonsensical versions of
events. Sean Spicer learned this on his first day on the job, when Trump
sent him into the White House briefing room to tell the press lies about
Inauguration-crowd sizes. He never recovered. But there was also no higher
purpose for which Spicer could claim he was serving Trump, except that
he was a political-communications official, and being the White House
spokesman is the top prize in that profession.

Republicans in Congress are a little farther up the pyramid. Many privately say that they believe Trump is a disaster of a President,
an embarrassment to the G.O.P., and, as Bob Corker recently
said publicly, echoing what he claimed were the views of most Republican
senators, setting America “on the path to World War III.” They justify
their support by noting that Trump will implement the core Republican
agenda, and that alone is worth the price of a person at least some
of them believe is unfit to be President. They may be privately
embarrassed by Trump, the agreement goes, but at least he has appointed
a reliable conservative to the Supreme Court, almost repealed Obamacare
(and still might), and has a decent chance at signing a big tax cut into
law. How morally justifiable one believes this argument is depends a lot
on how bad one believes Trump is for the country and the world, though
a Third World War seems like it would be a steep price to pay for Neil
Gorsuch.

The tougher cases are at the top of the pyramid. The government needs to
be staffed, and, especially in positions of national security, it’s hard
to argue against anyone taking a senior position at the Pentagon, the
State Department, or the National Security Council to insure that
Trump’s worst instincts are contained. This, of course, was the moral
dilemma of the three generals now in top civilian jobs serving Trump:
Defense Secretary James Mattis; the national-security adviser, H. R.
McMaster; and the White House chief of staff, John Kelly. They were all
generally respected for their military service, untainted by prior
association with Trump, and their work in the Administration was
generally believed to be a continuation of their service to the country
by making sure our erratic President doesn’t fulfill Corker’s warning.

We learned this week that, even if you maintain the most sympathetic
view of why these ex-generals continue to serve Trump, there is no way
to work for him without paying the Trump tax on one’s reputation. Since
joining the White House, Kelly has been viewed as a force for good. He
helped defactionalize the West Wing by removing some of its most
difficult personalities, such as Steve Bannon. He has implemented some
basic processes that all modern White Houses have had, such as a system
for controlling who meets with Trump and what information flows to him.
But then, yesterday, he was dragged into the sordid spectacle of Trump’s
fight with a congresswoman and the grieving family of La David Johnson,
the Army sergeant who was killed in Niger earlier this month.

Trump called Johnson’s widow to express his condolences. Some things
that Trump said, rather than console, offended Myeshia Johnson, who
allowed her local congresswoman and friend, Frederica Wilson, to listen
to the call. After Wilson complained publicly about the tone of the
call, Trump, rather than doing what any normal President would do by
apologizing for any miscommunication, escalated the apparent
misunderstanding into a Twitter war. The fact that Trump’s targets, a
widow and a Democratic congresswoman, are African-Americans added to the
sense that the President was, yet again, being racially divisive. Kelly,
who rarely speaks publicly, stepped into the briefing room yesterday to
defend the President. The most newsworthy comments he made concerned
Wilson, who he said was an “empty barrel” who had once turned a ceremony
meant to commemorate the deaths of two F.B.I. officers killed in the
line of duty into a celebration of her ability to steer tax dollars to
her district.

His attack on Wilson is worth quoting at length:

A congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money—the twenty million dollars— to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned. But, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, “O.K., fine.”

As was quickly reported, the
video of Wilson’s nine-minute speech is online. Wilson did tell a story about how
she; John Boehner, the House Speaker at the time; and Obama worked together to make sure that the
building was named after the two slain F.B.I. agents in time for the
event. She said nothing about securing funding (she was, in fact, not in
Congress when the money was authorized) and nothing about “how she took
care of her constituents.” She asked law-enforcement officials present
to stand up “so we can applaud you and what you do,” adding, “we’re
proud of you, we’re proud of your courage.” She then told the tragic
story of the two agents who lost their lives. The speech bears no
resemblance to the speech Kelly described. The White House chief of
staff maligned a congresswoman, whose only crime seemed to be
criticizing Trump, with a series of lies.

When a reporter at the White House on Friday asked Sarah Huckabee
Sanders about the glaring discrepancy between Kelly’s account and the
actual speech, she said that the White House stood by his remarks. “There
was a lot of grandstanding,” she said. “He was stunned that she had
taken that opportunity to make it about herself.” The reporter pressed:
“He was wrong yesterday in talking about getting the money. The money
was secured before she came into Congress.”

Sanders shot back with the kind of statement that would be normal in an
authoritarian country, suggesting that Kelly’s previous military service
placed him beyond criticism. “If you want to go after General Kelly,
that’s up to you,” she said. “But I think that that—if you want to get
into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s
something highly inappropriate.”

No, it is not. Kelly is the chief of staff and a political operative. He
held a press conference and told a lie that smeared one of Trump’s
political opponents. No government official’s military background, no
matter how honorable, makes him immune to criticism, especially given
the subject at hand. Sanders’s response was unnerving. But the bigger
lesson of the episode is that no matter how good one’s intentions are,
when you go to work for Trump, you will end up paying for it with your
reputation. For Kelly, not even his four stars prevented that.

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