General John Kelly's Disingenuous and Petulant Speech Was Not a Good Look

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly talks to the media during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly talks to the media during the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)


Wednesday night, retired USMC General and former White House Chief of Staff and Homeland Security Secretary gave a speech at Drew University. He used the speech and its Q&A session to take some shots at President Trump. Unfortunately, some of the statements, to me, said much more about Kelly than what Kelly thought it said about Trump.

Let me preface what follows with two connected opinions.

First, there is no doubt that Trump would be the Boss from Hell. My sideline assessment is that he is strictly a “what have you done for me lately” kind of guy who doesn’t care what you did last week. He cares about the headlines, the media interest of the moment. He doesn’t strike me as being particularly loyal to anyone who is not making him look good (looking good does not mean getting favorable press, see Stephen Miller). He’s more that willing to cut the legs out from under subordinates via Twitter. And he demands personal loyalty from his subordinates. I’ve worked for guys like this. It’s never fun.

The corollary to that is when you agree, when you volunteer to work for a man you owe him your loyalty so long as what he asks of you falls within the bounds of legal, moral, and ethical. Your feelings and twisted panties be damned. As the man said:

If you work for a man, in heaven’s name work for him, speak well of him, and stand by the institution he represents. Remember, an ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness. If you must growl, condemn, and eternally find fault – resign your position, and when you are outside, damn to your heart’s content – but as long as you are part of the institution, do not condemn it. If you do, the first high wind that comes along will blow you away, and probably you will never know why.


This is the general tenor of the speech, or at least the portions I’ve seen:

Throughout the appearance, Kelly laid out his doubts about Trump’s policies. Trump has held two formal summits with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, hoping to scuttle the country’s nuclear program through personal diplomacy. Kelly said the effort was futile.

“He will never give his nuclear weapons up,” Kelly said. “Again, President Trump tried—that’s one way to put it. But it didn’t work. I’m an optimist most of the time, but I’m also a realist, and I never did think Kim would do anything other than play us for a while, and he did that fairly effectively.”

Kelly didn’t know Trump when, after the 2016 election, he was first offered the job of secretary of homeland security. Watching the contest between Trump and the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, Kelly said he had been “fascinated—not necessarily in a good way—but fascinated as to what that election meant to our country.”

He said his wife urged him to accept the position, telling him, “I frankly think he needs you and people like you.” Kelly ran the Department of Homeland Security until the summer of 2017, when Trump tapped him to replace outgoing Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Kelly left the White House early last year.

If you are accepting a position because you oppose the man you’re working for and oppose what he’s doing and think you will be able to act as a roadblock, you’re not helping the country, you are part of the problem. That should be obvious to most anyone especially to man of Kelly’s experience. This opposition not only to Trump but seemingly to the GOP was apparent in other places:


Kelly identified other issues where he clashed with Trump, including the Muslim immigration ban and the president’s repeated characterization of the media as “the enemy of the state.”

“The media, in my view, and I feel very strongly about this, is not the enemy of the people,” he said. “We need a free media. That said, you have to be careful about what you are watching and reading, because the media has taken sides. So if you only watch Fox News, because it’s reinforcing what you believe, you are not an informed citizen.”

If the Homeland Security Secretary was not concerned about our inability to even carry out a cursory vetting of persons from failed states and from the largest remaining state sponsor of terrorism, you have to wonder what in the hell he was doing in the job. Likewise, why call out FoxNews when both CNN and MSNBC are much, much more partisan in their coverage and, in the case of CNN, don’t even bother to separate news from opinion programming.

I would also argue that his critique of the DPRK situation shows a strategic shortsightedness that is sort of stunning. Kelly claims we were played, but how many nuclear tests have been carried out since Trump approached Kim? How many ballistic missiles have been lobbed over Japan? How many armed provocations have been directed against South Korea? What sanctions have been loosened? As Churchill said, jaw-jaw is better than war-war and I think Kelly is being petulant and a bit dishonest to not acknowledge what the meetings between Kim and Trump have accomplished at absolutely no cost to our position in the region.


Where I think Kelly goes from disingenuous to downright dishonest is on the subject of Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexnder ‘no, really, that’s all muscle’ Vindman.

“He did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave,” Kelly told the audience at the Mayo Performing Arts Center. “He went and told his boss what he just heard.”

Although Trump has long insisted that his call to Zelensky was “perfect,” Kelly made clear that Trump indeed conditioned military aid on Zelensky’s help digging up dirt on the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

That amounted to a momentous change in U.S. policy toward Ukraine—one that Vindman was right to flag, because other federal agencies needed to know about the shift, Kelly said.

“Through the Obama administration up until that phone call, the policy of the U.S. was militarily to support Ukraine in their defensive fight against … the Russians,” Kelly said. “And so, when the president said that continued support would be based on X, that essentially changed. And that’s what that guy [Vindman] was most interested in.”

When Vindman heard the president tell Zelensky he wanted to see the Biden family investigated, that was tantamount to hearing “an illegal order,” Kelly said. “We teach them, ‘Don’t follow an illegal order. 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.’”


Factually, Vindman was never given any illegal order because he was merely an observer on a phone call. He did report his concerns to his boss. At that point, his duty ended. It certainly did not extend to telling Eric Ciaramella, who was not cleared for that information, about the call. It definitely did not extend for substituting his own policy preferences for those of the President. The corollary to what Kelly is saying is that after you receive what you believe to be an illegal order and you are told it is not illegal, you are under a legal obligation to carry out that order or possibly face court-martial charges. You don’t get to shop your side of the story to someone else in an effort to get your way. And I doubt seriously that Marine officers are taught to sabotage their boss because they don’t like what they are told to do. So this full-throated defense of a duplicitous little f*** like Vindman strikes one much more as payback directed at President Trump than a dispassionate discussion of the event.

Kelly is blatantly dishonest in his description of US Ukraine policy. The Obama administration provided meals-on-wheels service to Ukraine, the first military aid, aid that would actually stop Russian aggression, took place under Trump. More to the point, however, is that the US, per se, does not have a policy on anything. The policy pursued by the US is set by the President, sometimes in cooperation with Congress, sometimes in opposition to the will of Congress (see support of El Salvador and the Nicaraguan Contras for examples of the latter). No one really cares what blew the air up Vindman’s skirt, the fact is that the President was acting within the scope of his authority, Vindman didn’t like it, and he worked with his buddies Eric Ciamarella and Sean Misko to engineer a ‘whistleblower’ complaint that resulted in President Trump’s impeachment.


No matter what Vindman believed, the unalterable facts are that a) he went around his chain of command when he didn’t get his way, b)in a total abuse of his position of trust, he spread information he was privy to because of his position to others who were not authorized to have it, and c) his point of view was rejected by the US Senate, so he was wrong.

I understand that Kelly feels a little bruised and abused, but he knew who his boss was when the took the jobs. Both of them. As they say, ya buys yer ticket and ya takes yer chances.

If he really had objections to Trump, the honorable thing to have done would have been to decline to be the man’s chief of staff because the chief of staff owes his boss unswerving loyalty…even when he persists in making bad decisions…so long as those decisions are legal, moral and ethical. If what you are being told to do is none of those, you don’t hang around and carry out an internal resistance to the man to whom you owe allegiance, you resign. Go public if you must, but you don’t stay in the organization. The picture Kelly paints of himself is not a good one. Maintaining his silence would have been more manly than this petty whinging to amuse the Resistance.


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