John Kelly is no “moderate”

August 14, 2017

There's a new sheriff-wannabe in the White House. Danny Katch looks at his record.

SINCE TAKING over as the White House chief of staff two weeks ago, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly has won praise in the media for trying to implement utterly normal chief-of-staff procedures such as having final say over who gets to have meetings with the president.

By contrast, reported Bloomberg, "Trump resisted attempts by Kelly's predecessor, Reince Priebus, to stop White House staffers from popping in unannounced to see the president...Trump, who's known to be easily distracted, would wave in the visitors, even as his scheduled appointments sometimes backed up."

Kelly's promotion to chief of staff from head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) also seemed to alter the power dynamics inside the endlessly scheming world of the Trump administration.

Jeff Sessions was assured that his job was safe despite Trump's rambling tweets against his own Attorney General; Anthony Scaramucci was canned after 10 days as communications director; and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster was given the okay to fire Ezra Cohen-Watnick--an ally of Trump's chief strategist and in-house fascist Steve Bannon.

New White House Chief of Staff John Kelly at his confirmation hearing to head Homeland Security
New White House Chief of Staff John Kelly at his confirmation hearing to head Homeland Security (Wikimedia Commons)

Now, as Kelly accompanies Trump on his New Jersey gold resort vacation, he is conducting a review of administration personnel and is reportedly questioning, according to Politico, why Bannon "has a large staff, including an outside public relations expert, but no specific duties."

As a result, Kelly is being hailed for bringing "order to a chaotic and unruly White House" and even inspiring hopes that he might be a moderating influence against the far-right influence of advisers like Bannon, Steven Miller and their crackpot underlings who issue national security memos warning that the deep state is controlled by a cabal of globalists, "cultural Marxists" and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But don't forget: We've been here before.

WHEN KELLY was nominated to run DHS, he was praised as a moderate and easily confirmed in the Senate by a vote of 88 to 11. As a recent article in Politico explained, "John Kelly's sterling reputation as a Marine general with an appreciation for nuance led many Democrats to back his nomination as Homeland Security secretary in the hope that he would rein in President Donald Trump's hard-line immigration and security policies."

Kelly had "earned" this faith by hinting at a bit of discomfort with some of Trump's most right-wing campaign promises like a Muslim ban and ending Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

But just a brief look at his record as head of the Pentagon's Southern Command under the Obama administration showed clearly that John Kelly's politics were going to fit nicely in a Donald Trump White House.

Kelly's post at Southern Command, which guards the U.S. empire in Central and South America, gave him a firsthand view of the epidemic of gang wars, rape and violence that has led to unprecedented numbers of refugees--many of them unaccompanied children--fleeing northward for the U.S.

Yet in the face of this humanitarian crisis, all Kelly could see was the "existential threat" these children supposed posed to the U.S, as Heather Digby Parton explained in Salon:

He warned that neglect of the border had created vulnerabilities that could be exploited by terrorist groups, describing a "crime-terror convergence" already seen in Lebanese Hezbollah's alleged involvement in the region (a onetime assertion made in a congressional report a decade ago.) He said there exists an "incredibly efficient network" by which terrorists and weapons of mass destruction could travel into the United States...

In short, he has been a border-security fanatic for some time.

At Southern Command, Kelly was also in charge of the military prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, where, as Baher Azmy of the Center for Constitutional Rights explained on Democracy Now!, "he was in charge during...a mass hunger strike, in 2013, and...responded brutally, through mass force-feedings, solitary confinement, to punish detainees."

Azny added that Kelly refused to call the protest a hunger strike, but instead gave it the Orwellian label "long-term, nonreligious fasting."

That's the kind of chilling enthusiasm for violent repression that will get you noticed by Trump. When Kelly was nominated to run DHS, he responded with a sound bite sure to please his new boss: "The American people voted in this election to stop terrorism, take back sovereignty at our borders, and put a stop to political correctness that for too long has dictated our approach to national security."

The only reason John Kelly's tenure at Southern Command gave him a reputation for "nuance" was that his xenophobic and anti-Muslim politics were at the time serving a Democratic rather than Republican administration--and that, unlike crackpots like Michael Flynn, Kelly was a smooth political operator who ran a tight ship.

UNSURPRISINGLY, JOHN Kelly's short tenure running Homeland Security was not known for its moderation or nuance.

Kelly defended the president's attempts at an anti-Muslim travel ban and has been just as cruel to immigrants as the most bigoted Trump supporter could have hoped.

In March, Kelly announced that DHS was considering snatching children away from parents who are caught crossing the border. In May, he dismissed the uproar over the deportation of a mother with her five-year old son despite facing death threats in her native Honduras--by claiming to know that she has been trained by smugglers to lie in order to get asylum.

Even as he was shifting his agency's focus to target a wide range of immigrants, Kelly adopted the seemingly tough but actually cowardly posture of the military bureaucrat who claims he's only following orders.

"If lawmakers do not like the laws they've passed and we are charged to enforce, then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws,'' he said in an April speech. "Otherwise they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines.''

This blunt soldier talk goes over great in the media. A typical fawning media profile of Kelly began, "The first thing you need to know about John Kelly? He's a Marine." As if he was plucked for the White House while he was in the middle of a commando crawl under some barbed wire.

In fact, Kelly has long been a Washington insider, having served as a legislative assistant for the Marine Corps commandant in the mid-2000s before becoming a liaison to former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during the Obama years. In the year before Trump's election, Kelly had retired from the military and was working for Dyncorp, a major player in the military-industrial complex.

So far, it looks like Kelly's vows to whip the White House into tiptop military shape may be just as much hot air as a Scaramucci press conference. For certain, the tough-guy general has been no more successful than the hapless Priebus at restraining Trump from going on wild rants--and Reince can at least say that on his watch, the president never threatened the "fire and fury" of nuclear holocaust.

The moral of the story? No establishment figure is coming into the White House to save us from Donald Trump. He's too far gone, and the "establishment" is far closer to him than many pundits wants to admit.

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