Yesterday, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly got a very hard lesson about the smash-mouth nature of press operations at the higher reaches of government and industry.
But there is nothing new under the sun and these classic cases have the same root cause as Kelly’s Black Friday.
On August 1 and August 10, 1943, Lieutenant General George Patton visited medical facilities in Sicily and precipitated a pair of “slapping” incidents wherein he physically chastised two young soldiers suffering from “battle fatigue.”
The incidents were not only witnessed by medical staff and patients, they were witnessed by the contingent of war correspondents who trailed after Patton. Some of the reporters were going to file stories but, collectively, they decided to approach Patton’s boss, Eisenhower. Eisenhower gave them his word that he’d take care of it and they made a “Gentleman’s Agreement” to bury the story.
Eisenhower issued Patton a scathing reprimand and ordered him to make a prelude of Obama’s Apology Tour.
All went well until November 1943 when radio journalist Drew Pearson caught wind of the story and decided he was not part of the club and broadcast the story…because ratings are ratings.
In 2010, General Stan McChrystal was relieved of command after a profile was published in Rolling Stone in which he said unflattering things about Obama and his coterie of strap-hangers. This came about because he let Mike Hastings travel with his entourage and he became quite used to him being there. In time, he forgot that Hastings wasn’t one of his guys, Hastings was in the business of promoting Hastings’s career.
Friday was a perfect storm of media for Kelly. Not only did he opine that President Trump was spreading rumors about people being fired out of some perverse sense of enjoyment–just remember that on Tuesday, one of Trump’s favored reporters, NYT’s Maggie Haberman, was tweeting that lots more changes would happen before the end of the week.
Well here we are, and no changes. (Yes, I know what he’s tweeted about Haberman but I also keep track of who he gives interviews to. She landed his first major on the record interview after his inauguration.) He also did more damage to Rex Tillerson’s dignity than anything Donald Trump has managed to do by revealing that Tillerson was on the toilet with some African intestinal bug when he was told he was fired.
How did this happen to a guy who is usually damned tight-lipped?
Let’s visit with Axios to discover…
John Kelly acknowledged in an off-the-record session with reporters today…
So, how you might ask, could Kelly acknowledge anything in an off-the-record session. (By the way, having done this professionally for a while, there is no such thing as “off-the-record.” You are “off-the-record” exactly to the extent that the reporter doesn’t see an advantage in burning you.)
How we know this: Axios was not invited to the off-the-record session and is therefore not bound by the rules. We got our information from three sources familiar with the meeting, who paraphrased the discussion.
Kelly obviously has a group of reporters with whom he has built a rapport and who he thinks can be counted on to treat the administration fairly. To appreciate this, take a joke break (safe for work unless you work around hirsute SJWs,but definitely off-color):
Because I think it would be fair to ask Kelly if does still believe in leprechauns.
So he has a meeting to try get his spin on things, he tells the Tillerson story because this gives him currency with them and they now know the hottest gossip, and the meeting breaks up and these reporters, being reporters, just have to gossip. And Jonathan Swan decided that if he wasn’t good enough to be invited to the off-the-record then he was under no obligation to keep its confidences.
I don’t suspect Kelly will make this mistake again. But the fact that he got burned to the ground in such a manner, and especially the gratuitous Tillerson story, is a shame. It means reliable information will be much harder to come by. It means Kelly’s ability to contain damage and get ahead of stories has just been severely limited. It means that Donald Trump will be free to play mindgames with the White House Press Corps and the Never Trump people until he gets tired.