When John Kelly oversaw the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, dozens of detainees refused to eat as a form of protest. Kelly, furious at the potential propaganda implications, instructed his charges to avoid using the term “hunger strike,” insisting it be called a “long-term nonreligious fast.”
That moment in 2013 showed that Kelly can be “spectacularly tone deaf,” said a senior military officer who served at U.S. Southern Command when Kelly was the commander. It highlighted “a kind of paternalistic, the-adults-are-in-charge, we-know-better, cavalier approach to bending and attempting to control facts.”
“If you think you can control language, then you have a lot of other problems in determining how the world sees things,” said the officer, requesting anonymity to avoid upsetting his current employer.
This week, in two highly visible incidents, that same weakness flared for Kelly, now chief of staff for a president who has long insisted he will never be “politically correct.” The result has damaged his reputation as a calming force for an often-chaotic White House.
The most recent case engulfed the White House on Thursday as officials struggled with Kelly’s defense of a top aide, Rob Porter, who resigned Wednesday and left the White House on Thursday after allegations became public that he had physically abused not just one, but two ex-wives.
Only after a grim photograph of one of the women’s blackened eye was published did Kelly offer a measure of condemnation — a reminder of the power of pictures to force action that words alone cannot. Until the images surfaced, White House officials had said Porter would stay in his post for an extended period before leaving.
“I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter,” Kelly said in a statement late Wednesday. “There is no place for domestic violence in our society.”
That came hours after Kelly had given Porter strong backing, praising his “integrity and honor.” Even in the latter statement, in which he accepted Porter’s resignation, Kelly added that he stood by “my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming chief of staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation.”
Inevitably, the efforts to defend Porter generated questions about what Kelly knew and when.
White House spokesman Raj Shah conceded Thursday that the publication of the photo played a key role in changing the position of Kelly and other officials who, earlier in the week, had tried to persuade Porter to stay at his job and fight the allegations.
Shah also acknowledged that Porter had been operating on an “interim” security clearance after the allegations of spousal abuse had come up during his FBI background check. That clearance allowed him to review classified documents.
Shah would not say how much of the allegations Kelly had been told about. But instead of suspending Porter from his duties while the allegations were investigated, Kelly allowed him to stay on the job.
“We all could have done better,” Shah said in a rare concession of error in Trump’s White House.
Kelly’s initial praise of Porter came Tuesday as the Daily Mail of London, which first published the abuse allegations, confronted the White House with the details.
Trump, who was not aware of the specific problems with Porter’s security clearance, was “surprised” by the allegations when he heard the news reports Tuesday night, Shah said.
“He was saddened by it — saddened for all the individuals involved,” Shah said.
The questions about Porter came on top of an earlier incident in which Kelly told reporters Tuesday that some of the young immigrants known as Dreamers who failed to seek legal protections under an Obama-era program were “too lazy to get off their asses,” eliciting accusations that he was engaging in ugly stereotypes.
Kelly was brought into the White House in July after serving as secretary of Homeland Security. His predecessor, Reince Priebus, was seen as too weak to tame the White House’s competing factions and gain the respect and confidence of Trump.
Those who know Trump well say he has valued Kelly’s attempts to instill order, even though Trump has bristled at times over Kelly’s desire to exert so much control over who sees and speaks with the president.
Last month, Kelly pushed Trump’s limits when he told members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that the president’s initial campaign promise of a solid continuous border wall was “uninformed” and that Mexico would not pay for it.
That, and similar comments to Fox News, prompted Trump to tweet defensively, “The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it,” while conceding that “parts of it” would be transparent and other areas of the border with natural protections would not have any structure at all.
“Kelly, of course, has brought down an iron curtain, and I think the president likes the fact that it’s more orderly,” said Roger Stone, a longtime political advisor to Trump. But, Stone added that “having worked for Donald Trump for 40 years, at a certain point, he hates being left in the dark.”
Stone called the Porter incident a “self-inflicted wound,” though some of that criticism arises from Stone’s view that Porter, a Harvard-educated former top Senate aide, is too closely tied to the Republican establishment.
Porter’s resignation, and the fumbling White House response to it, also renewed attention to the White House’s struggles to vet top employees — one of the problems that Kelly’s supporters had suggested he could fix.
The earliest example of the vetting problem came with the naming of Michael Flynn as Trump’s first national security advisor, despite known red flags that eventually led to his guilty plea on charges of lying to the FBI.
Just last week, Trump’s appointee as head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, resigned after Politico reported that she traded in tobacco stocks after taking the position. Tom Price, Trump’s first secretary of Health and Human Services, also was accused of financial conflicts of interest. Anthony Scaramucci lasted just 10 days as Trump’s communications director.
Omarosa Manigault, a former contestant on “The Apprentice” who left her White House position in December, was casually dismissed by Shah on Thursday as someone who should be taken “not very seriously,” when he was asked about new criticisms she levied this week against the White House.
At the same time, Kelly’s comments about immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally when they were children were another reminder that the chief of staff shares some of Trump’s instincts to insert tough language into polarizing issues.
The comment about Dreamers, uttered in the midst of difficult negotiations over how to prevent hundreds of thousands of new deportations, generated intense anger among Latinos and immigrant advocates.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said Kelly’s “insults of Dreamers are both factually and morally wrong and do not speak to the best of who we are as a nation.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said on the House floor Thursday, “I say to the chief of staff of the president of the United States, the Dreamers are not lazy.”
Kelly’s taste for confrontation emerged in October as well, when he falsely accused a Democratic congresswoman, Florida Rep. Frederica Wilson, of grandstanding during the dedication of an FBI facility in Miami named for fallen agents.
Even when confronted with video evidence that his accusation wasn’t true, Kelly refused to back down, displaying another Trumpian quality. The conflict with Wilson arose out of a dispute involving Trump’s condolence call to the family of a fallen soldier.
Back then, the White House tried to insulate Kelly from criticism.
“If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”
During his time as a general, Kelly had a reputation as a forceful but pragmatic decision-maker, said a former national security official who has worked closely with Kelly and now worries that his current post has clouded his judgment.
The attention to Kelly’s actions has put him in an uncomfortable spot. In November, he explained part of his philosophy to reporters traveling with Trump to Asia. He insisted he was trying to push his staff away from the reactive mode that preceded his arrival.
“The tweets don’t run my life — good staff work runs it,” he said, adding that he does not even follow Trump’s Twitter account.
Kelly has said this is the hardest job he has ever had, and also the most important.
Last month, he brought a group of reporters into his office to brief them about Trump’s plans to address Dreamers as part of a broader immigration proposal. Trump burst in and unexpectedly told reporters he would support a path to citizenship.
Kelly folded his hands and leaned against a windowsill, appearing to avoid revealing any emotion with his facial expression.
As the encounter wore on, Trump began veering into other topics, eventually offering that he would “love” to speak with Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating Russian meddling in the presidential election.
Kelly audibly sighed.