Last year, Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that if anyone could bring order to the Trump White House, it was the retired four-star US Marine general. Were they wrong?
On a Saturday afternoon last July, the day after John Kelly agreed to become US president Donald Trump’s chief of staff, an email arrived in his inbox. “Congratulations!” it began. “(I think!)”
The sender was Philippe Reines, Hillary Clinton’s longtime aide and image buffer since her time in the US Senate.
Reines met Kelly while working for Clinton at the US State Department, when Kelly was a senior military aide to Leon Panetta, then the defence secretary. The two stayed in touch.
After Kelly left military service in 2016, he joined the advisory board at Reines’s consulting firm, Beacon Global Strategies, cashing a couple of cheques before he was summoned to Trump Tower.
“Can’t say I’m rooting for your boss, but I’m absolutely rooting for you,” Reines wrote to Kelly. “Especially if it takes the edges off him.”
He offered some unsolicited advice: Stay off television. Tend to the mystique. Let the Kellyanne Conways and Anthony Scaramuccis talk up the president. “You don’t want to be in that basket,” Reines said.
Kelly replied the next day. “Thanks for taking the time,” he wrote. “I came to these same conclusions. I may be in this job for a day, or a few years, but I will stay true to my values. We are in dangerous times, Philippe, and the POTUS — any POTUS — needs all the help he can get.
“What I do, I do for the country. That’s been my North Star for 46+ years of service and it’s worked thus far.”
Seven months later, over Presidents’ Day weekend, Air Force One touched down, as it often does, in Florida, for a spell of distinctly Trumpian presidenting: Trump visited a hospital that treated victims of the Parkland school massacre before decamping to Mar-a-Lago, where a Studio 54-style disco party was waiting.
The next night, he shared a meal at the club with his adult sons, Don Jr and Eric, and chat show host Geraldo Rivera. Near, but not so near, was Kelly, dining at another table.
Some guests approached Kelly to pay tribute, thanking him for keeping the president on course. “That’s what the White House needs: discipline,” Wayne Allyn Root, a Trump-loving radio host who introduced himself to Kelly that night, told me.
"I won’t say he’s a celebrity. That’s probably a bad word. But he’s a person that’s respected by everybody.”
For most of his 67 years, Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general who projects the weary asceticism of a TV cop perpetually two weeks from retirement, might have been out of place among Mar-a-Lago’s bronzed faces and gilded trimmings.
But by mid-February, this was one of the few rooms where he could still expect such a warm reception. Back in Washington, the scandal surrounding his handling of abuse claims against a top aide, Rob Porter, hummed through its second week — an unusual longevity in a White House where news of a Trump lawyer’s pre-election hush payment to a porn star had come and gone without great consequence.
More surprising still was how quickly, and unshakably, the crisis attached itself to Kelly, whose sins — praising the aide too forcefully before his departure, purportedly sitting on the allegations for months without acting — felt airlifted from an era of more traditional Washington cover-ups.
Kelly held onto his job through the weekend, which did not initially seem like a given. But Trump had already been musing privately about possible replacements.
Even among Trump critics, Kelly once inspired uncommon sympathy. While other high-level officials had invited doubts about how long they could possibly tolerate working in the administration, Kelly’s responsibilities seemed uniquely masochistic: He was the chief disciplinarian in a famously undisciplined White House.
“You never run into somebody like Trump in the military,” Panetta told me. “They’d usually get kicked out.”
The job itself was premised on a paradox: If Trump weren’t Trump, Kelly’s position would be bearable. And if Trump weren’t Trump, you would not need a John Kelly.
Now, Kelly’s struggle has grown lonelier — informed, even before the Porter affair, by yawning cracks in his once-broad base of support.
Some of Trump’s deepest skeptics had convinced themselves, despite a career’s worth of counterevidence, that a well-travelled military man might temper the president’s instincts, particularly on immigration. Then there were Kelly’s friends, who had already worried that the job was bending Kelly to its will, and not the other way around.
Shortly after Election Day, Senator Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Republican, went to Trump Tower to see the president-elect. Trump was preparing to staff his cabinet, and he asked Cotton, an Iraq war veteran, to name the best general of this generation. Cotton chose Kelly.
“The president didn’t know about General Kelly and asked me to tell him more,” Cotton told me.
In December, Trump nominated Kelly to run the US Department of Homeland Security.
Unlike many prospective additions to the administration, Kelly had stayed out of the 2016 campaign. In an interview withAmerican news publication Foreign Policy that July, he said he would be willing to serve in either a Trump or a Clinton administration but made plain his distaste for the “cesspool of domestic politics”.
“To join in the political fray, I don’t think it convinces anyone,” he said, chiding fellow military leaders who lined up behind candidates. “It just becomes a talking point on CNN.”
His confirmation process was mostly incident-free, specked with the kind of John Wayne dialogue that had dazzled Trump from the start. Before Kelly’s Senate hearing, an aide who helped him prepare, Blain Rethmeier, noticed the general had neglected to attach a flag pin to his lapel.
“Blain,” Kelly told him, declining the pin, “I am an American flag.”
He was confirmed on Inauguration Day, 88 votes to 11. “A great choice,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader, at the time.
Kelly grew up in Boston’s Brighton section, the Catholic-school-educated son of a postal worker; fellow Marines joked that his accent required a Boston-to-English translator. In his own telling, he was shaped by two forces in the neighbourhood: Men who had worn the military uniform — his father, his uncles, everyone in the area — and the ubiquitous drug use among his peers.
“He would claim that growing up in South Boston, he lost most of everybody he grew up with to drugs,” Adam Isacson, the director of defence oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, told me, recalling meetings with Kelly when he led the United States Southern Command. “It was part of his persona.”
By the time the Iraq war began, Kelly, by then a three-decade veteran of the corps, had become the first Marine promoted to brigadier general in an active combat zone in more than half a century, according to the Marines.
On Barack Obama’s first trip to Iraq as the presumed Democratic nominee in July 2008, Kelly rode with him in an armoured truck across Anbar Province.
His career advanced rapidly during Obama’s first term, and in 2012, he was named to head the Southern Command (“Southcom”), charged with overseeing United States military operations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
But perhaps Kelly’s most instructive experiences at Southcom involved the scourge of trafficking — drugs, weapons, people. From command headquarters, just outside Miami, he tracked narcotics production in Colombia and Guatemala.
At a forum in 2015, Kelly recalled meeting an official from Customs and Border Protection who oversaw some 200 miles of the Mexico-Texas line. “I asked her how much cocaine she got last year.
She said, proud as she could be, ‘642 pounds,’ ” Kelly said. “That’s pocket litter to me. I got 191 metric tons last year.”
He also charted the rise of MS-13, an international criminal gang that had become a security threat across Central America.
Kelly seemed to see immigration almost entirely through the prism of security — paralleling Trump’s campaign, which nodded to the zero-sum economic view of immigration prominent on the right for years, but dwelled far more on blood-and-guts anecdotes of violent crime by immigrants.
Although Southcom’s area of responsibility does not include Mexico, this did not discourage Kelly from holding forth. On the country, making claims that, according to Obama-administration officials, he sometimes contradicted the intelligence of Northcom, the Pentagon command covering Mexico.
At the height of the ebola scare of 2014, he suggested publicly that the disease would spark a stampede across the border, incensing White House staff members who thought he was stoking panic.
“If it breaks out, it’s literally, ‘Katie, bar the door,’ ” Kelly said. “And there will be mass migration into the United States.”
As he assumed control at US Homeland Security, Kelly implied that his views on immigration were more nuanced than Trump’s, infused with compassion for a region whose leaders he had come to know personally.
In preconfirmation testimony, Kelly accused the United States of “ignoring what our drug demand does to the people of Central and South America,” whose countries had devolved at times into “nearly failed narco-states”.
He positioned himself as a moderate voice in sessions with lawmakers, casting doubt on the wisdom of a massive border wall. Speaking to a group of Democrats last year, he suggested that undocumented immigrants without a serious criminal footprint would not be enforcement priorities.
The benefit of the doubt lasted nine days. On January 29, Trump signed an executive order barring entry to the US by residents of seven predominantly Muslim countries, inciting large protests at airports across the country — and a backlash against Democrats who had voted to confirm Kelly, whose department was left to carry out the order.
Kelly told angry lawmakers that responsibility for the chaos was “all on me.”
In reality, according to an exhaustive Inspector General’s report released early this year, Kelly and his team were caught almost entirely off-guard.
He told investigators that “he had assumed that White House staff had proactively engaged US Congress and other stakeholders” before the order was signed, according to the report.
Publicly, Kelly cheered the spirit of the measure, arguing that a federal court order blocking the ban was preventing the nation from doing “all that we can to weed out potential wrongdoers from these locations”. Privately, he faulted the execution.
“That’s not going to happen again,” he told the White House.
At the same time, he was making good on a signature Trump campaign promise. Immigration officers arrested more than 140,000 people in 2017, a sharp uptick.
“We questioned the fact that many of these arrests were taking place when parents were dropping off their children to go to school,” Representative Nydia Velázquez, a Democrat from New York who met with Kelly at the time, told me. “He didn’t back down.”
By then, most Democrats had seen enough. “He’s disappointing to me,” Schumer decided by February of last year, suggesting in an interview that Kelly was probably “regretting going in”.
Kelly betrayed no second thoughts in public. He also began taking on duties that appeared to be outside his jurisdiction.
When news broke that Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, worked to establish a secret communications channel with Russian diplomats during the transition, it was Kelly who defended the effort on television as “a good thing.”
In May, addressing a private breakfast with former diplomats and foreign-policy experts, Kelly said he had suggested to Tillerson, the since departed US secretary of state, that he could “take care of Central America” while Tillerson confronted first-order headaches like North Korea, according to a person in the room. (A White House spokesman disputes this account.)
It was no secret, by then, that Trump had grown disenchanted with his first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, who presided over a team consumed by squabbling factions, endless leaks, and broad walk-in privileges for presidential face time. (In one Oval Office meeting Trump had with New York Times reporters in April, no fewer than 20 people came and went.)
In an interview with the newspaper last December, Kelly said that he told Trump around this time that he did not believe the president “was being well served by the staff” in some respects. A month and a half later, Kelly recalled, Trump called and said: “I need you to be chief.”
Kelly set out first to slay the meandering, oversize meetings he loathed. “I see these people,” he used to tell staff members at Homeland Security, after returning from the White House. “I don’t even know who they are or what they do.”
Almost immediately, he sought to institute new rules: Meetings were to be tight, targeted, and surprise-free. Once, vice-president Mike Pence showed up for one unexpectedly.
“You guys have the meeting,” Kelly grumbled, walking off, according to a White House official who witnessed the exchange.
For decades, the White House chief of staff’s mandate has been tough love — the capacity to close the door to the Oval Office and tell the president what he does not want to hear.
“Above all, you are the honest broker of information,” Chris Whipple, the author of The Gatekeepers, a history of White House chiefs, told me. True to this template, Kelly clamped down on the free flow of information to Trump, who once rifled through Breitbart articles and conspiracy theories with impunity.
Some executive riffraff was expelled altogether.
“He fired me like a gentleman,” says Anthony Scaramucci, who lasted 11 days as communications director and scolds anyone who suggests it was 10.
Those who dared attempt an unsanctioned chat with the president could expect a Kelly follow-up: “You want to be chief of staff?”
The early purges, which included the exits of the advisers Stephen K Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, restored a measure of good will toward Kelly among Democrats. But again, Kelly’s kinship with Trump on immigration was underestimated.
“Part of that is the Marine in him, part of that is the Irish guy in Boston who believes that in the end, you really do have to abide by the laws,” said Panetta, a friend of Kelly’s. “I think that’s what’s coming out now.”
In November, as US Homeland Security was set to extend residency permits for tens of thousands of Hondurans living in the US, Kelly made an 11th-hour plea to the department’s acting secretary to reconsider the move.
When the administration debated lowering the annual cap on refugees — should it stay at 110,000? Fall to 50,000, the minimum recommended by US Defence and State Department officials? Land somewhere in between? — Kelly offered his take: If it were his call, he said, the number would be between zero and one. The administration settled on 45,000.
Even as Kelly has driven out the most flamboyant West Wing agitators — Scaramucci, Omarosa Manigault Newman, Bannon, Gorka — it has not gone unnoticed that Stephen Miller, the 32-year-old senior policy adviser and Trump’s man on immigration policy since the campaign, has thrived on Kelly’s watch.
“He turns out to have been more hawkish than I might have expected,” Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the hard-line Center for Immigration Studies, told me of Kelly. “It’s a pleasant surprise.”
In January, several Senate moderates believed they were close to securing Trump’s support for a compromise measure protecting the young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, in exchange for border-security funding and other policy adjustments.
Trump invited some of them to a televised summit at the White House, where he told them he would approve any legislation they brought him.
“I’m not going to say: ‘Oh, gee, I want this, or I want that,’ ” he said. “I’ll be signing it.”
Kelly sat silently through the televised session. But after about an hour, when the cameras were dismissed and the meeting began in earnest, he unburdened himself in what four attendees described as a caustic scolding.
“You’ve been fiddling around for years on immigration,” he told lawmakers. The time had come, he said before leaving in a huff, to “do your job”.
Attendees were handed a document labelled “MUST HAVE’S,” outlining the administration’s demands: Billions in border-wall funding, an end to “extended chain migration” and a move toward a “merit-based system” for legal immigration.
These were requirements long pushed by Kelly and Miller and likely to sink any deal with Democrats.
“What’s this?” Trump asked, according to three people present, eyeballing the list of what were ostensibly his own policy directives. He suggested the papers were unhelpful and could be disregarded. Lawmakers left the meeting unsure if the president knew his own administration’s position, or if he was even responsible for it.
Days later, a bipartisan group of senators led by Dick Durbin of Illinois and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina thought again that they could sell Trump on their plans, only to be thwarted anew.
This time, they did not conceal their frustrations with Kelly in particular. “I don’t think he was well served by his staff,” Graham said of the president to reporters at the Capitol. And Kelly, he said, was “part of the staff”.
In another meeting with Hispanic congressional Democrats later in January, Kelly made the case once more for a “merit-based system” for legal immigration. Members reminded him what he was asking of them.
Kelly’s active role in immigration policy, Whipple told me, was highly unusual for a chief of staff, setting Kelly apart from even otherwise partisan warriors such as Dick Cheney, who served as chief to Gerald Ford, and Rahm Emanuel, the first to hold the position under Obama.
“This is abnormal,” Whipple said. “He’s been more partisan than almost any chief of staff I can think of.”
It took a mass shooting and another round of Russia intrigue to elbow speculation about Kelly’s job status, post-Porter scandal, temporarily out of the news. “Trying to keep below the radar, particularly after the Porter issue and my involvement was so inaccurately covered,” Kelly told me in an email, declining an interview.
But his standing has not necessarily rebounded. This fate seems to flow, in part, from the heightened initial expectations of him. But it also speaks to his shortage of allies in Trump’s inner circle.
Rivals, sensing a power vacuum, are wasting no time, spawning a succession of leaks and counterleaks that evoke the Priebus-era West Wing.
Today Kelly holds the support of two incongruous constituencies: those who cheer him on immigration and those who assume, despite the strikes against him, that he is preventing catastrophes no one can see. But this base is shrinking.
“One Donald is bad enough,” Reines, one of the last Democratic holdouts, tweeted as Kelly cycled through conflicting explanations of the Porter timeline in February. “We don’t need two.”
Older friends have greeted recent events with a deeper despair. Some war buddies, eager to publicly support Kelly when he took the job, have begged off entirely.
“I’d prefer not to talk anymore about him,” Mark Hertling, a retired three-star general who served with Kelly in Iraq, told me, “given what I’ve seen lately.”
For John Allen, a retired four-star general who has known Kelly since the late 1970s and endorsed Clinton in 2016, the first distress signal seemed to come in October.
Trump had upset the widow of La David T Johnson, an Army sergeant who was killed in an ambush in Niger, by telling her that her husband “knew what he signed up for”.
Defending himself afterward, Trump falsely accused Obama of not contacting the families of fallen troops at all, adding (truthfully) that Obama did not call Kelly when his son, First Lt Robert Kelly, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
But Kelly went on to accuse Frederica Wilson, a Florida congresswoman who knew the widow and listened to Trump’s phone call with her, of making self-aggrandising remarks years earlier. A video from the time quickly proved him wrong, but Kelly never apologised. To friends who had winced often at Trump’s conduct, but never Kelly’s, it was agonising to watch.
In the months since, Trump and Kelly have found new reasons to grow sick of each other. Even before the Porter maelstrom began dominating Trump’s cable-news diet, the president had been smarting for weeks over Kelly’s suggestion to Fox News that the president had “evolved” on his wall demands.
Both episodes stirred latent frustrations with Kelly’s imperious style, which had grated on Trump.
“He’s a free spirit,” Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime informal adviser, said of the president. “Nobody handles Donald Trump. Nobody manages him. He resents those who try.”
Trump has been floating Gary Cohn, his economic adviser, as a possible replacement. But on immigration, Kelly’s legacy, such as it is, may already be secure. His tumble has coincided with what was supposed to be a period of congressional progress on the issue — testing the priorities of a president who would still like a wall but thrills at the prospect of any signing ceremony.
After appearing inclined at times toward an agreement with Democrats before Kelly helped reel him back, Trump has by now wholly convinced them that he is not to be trusted to cut a deal.
Once held up as the administration’s most credible cross-aisle emissary, Kelly has instead become the figure — even more than Miller, from whom Democrats expected nothing less — most closely associated with White House intransigence.
There is a favourite book of Kelly’s that he has said he rereads at key moments of his career. It is The General, a 1936 novel by CS Forester, set among British forces around the First World War. Principally, it is about a commander unable to meet the moment.
“He is a brave guy, a dedicated guy, a noble guy,” Kelly said of the protagonist, Herbert Curzon, in a collection of book recommendations by military leaders published last year, “but a guy who in the end has become a corps commander — a three-star general — and when presented with an overwhelming German attack couldn’t figure out how to deal with it, because he’d never developed himself intellectually.”
Outmatched by his circumstances, Curzon resolves, at least, to fall on his terms. “He didn’t know the great lessons of the great master, if you will,” Kelly said, “and then he just decided one day to go down to his horse, grab his sword, and attack — with the intent of dying.”