With the sacking of Anthony Scaramucci, General John Kelly showed he meant business, but whether he can control Donald Trump remains to be seem, writes Bette Browne
PRESIDENT Donald Trump’s feuding White House may finally have found a grown-up to run its affairs in the shape of an Irish-American general. For now, at least.
“The days of tolerating BS in this White House are over,” was how an associate of General John Kelly summed it up after the four-star Marine general was sworn in as White House chief of staff on Monday.
The proof came in a dramatic move just hours later when Mr Trump’s communications chief, Anthony Scaramucci, was fired and escorted from the White House after having made foul-mouthed comments days before to a reporter about senior staff.
General Kelly made it clear to the president who had hired Scaramucci only 10 days earlier that he would have to go.
It all began well for the brash New York financier when Mr Trump named him his new communications chief on July 21. He made the right noises at his first press conference about the need for an end to warfare among White House staff.
He raised a few eyebrows by repeatedly declaring his “love” for the president and ended the conference by blowing a kiss to reporters.
Still, that was his style— the bravado, the New York swagger. Besides, Mr Trump liked him, he trusted him, so maybe he’d work on sharpening the president’s tactics and dampening his tweets.
Then, everything began falling apart. The man touted as Mr Trump’s saviour began to turn into his clone.
In a conversation with New Yorker reporter Ryan Lizza, the polished, urbane Scaramucci transformed himself into a vulgar and vicious operative in an X-rated tirade, lashing out at those who opposed his arrival in the White House, strategist Steve Bannon and then chief of staff Reince Priebus, whom he called a “paranoid schizophrenic”.
When he came under criticism for the outburst, Scaramucci promised he would refrain from “colourful” language and Mr Trump seemed to accept that characterisation. Meantime, however, the president acceded to Scaramucci’s request and fired Priebus. Bannon, as always, survived.
With Priebus gone, the president needed a new chief of staff. He settled on the man he calls the “star” of his cabinet, General John Kelly, whom he had made Homeland Security chief six months earlier and who had been implementing the president’s measures against illegal immigrants.
But Kelly laid out tough conditions for the White House top job. Power grabs and infighting would have to end. Everyone, including Bannon, would report to him and there would be no place on the team for Anthony Scaramucci.
Within hours Mr Trump decided his best course was to abandon his longtime friend.
John Kelly had put his stamp on the White House.
He’s clearly won the first round and tamed the turmoil, at least for now. But can he win the battle?
If he continues to stand up to the president, something many in the White House and the Republican party are reluctant to do, he may certainly bring more order and focus to the presidency.
Indeed, his record shows he has the capacity to do that. He vehemently objected to Mr Trump’s firing of FBI chief James Comey, who was investigating possible collusion with Russia between the president or his team during last year’s election.
Back in the early days of the Trump presidency, it was Kelly, along with defence secretary General James Mattis, who made it clear they were less than happy with how some policy developments had been handled by the White House.
During the transition, Mattis clashed with the Trump team over some appointments to the defence department, while Kelly told a House of Representatives committee the administration should have taken more time to inform Congress before implementing its executive order blocking entry of people from a number of Muslim-majority nations.
Since then, however, Kelly has shown himself to be tough, even zealous, in implementing measures as Homeland Security chief and he came under attack, not least from some fellow Irish-Americans, over raids across the country that rounded up hundreds of illegal immigrants. There are an estimated 11m undocumented immigrants in the US, about 50,000 of whom are Irish.
General Kelly himself was born into an Irish immigrant family and is proud of his Irish roots. He was born in Boston on May 11, 1950, into an Irish Catholic family. He showed an adventurous spirit from an early age. He hitchhiked across the country a couple of times and had jumped a freight train from Seattle to Chicago in an empty boxcar by his 16th birthday.
He also went into the Merchant Marines for a year and recalls that his first time overseas was taking 10,000 tonnes of beer to Vietnam. Then he joined the Marines.
“In the America I grew up in, every male was a veteran, my dad, my uncles and all the people on the block [in Boston]. So, with that kind of background and the [Vietnam] draft, you assumed you were going to go into the service when your time came. In my neighborhood you joined the Marines.”
In 2010, Kelly’s 29-year-old son, First Lieutenant Robert Kelly, was killed in action when he stepped on a landmine while leading a platoon of Marines on a patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan. The younger Kelly was a former enlisted Marine and was on his third combat tour, and his first combat tour as a US Marine Corps infantry officer.
Robert Kelly’s death made John Kelly the highest-ranking military officer to lose a child in Iraq or Afghanistan. He retired last year after serving 45 years in the military, including in Iraq. He also has strong views on America’s self-declared War on Terror. He said this in a 2014 speech: “Our enemy fights for an ideology based on an irrational hatred of who we are. Make no mistake about that no matter what certain elements of the ‘chattering classes’ relentlessly churn out. We did not start this fight, and it will not end until the extremists understand that we as a people will never lose our faith or our courage.
“It is not Bush’s war, and it is not Obama’s war. It is our war and we can’t run away from it. Even if we wanted to surrender, there is no one to surrender to. Our enemy is savage, offers absolutely no quarter, and has a single focus and that is either kill every one of us here at home, or enslave us with a sick form of extremism that serves no God or purpose that decent men and women could ever grasp.
“The problem is our enemy is not willing to let us go. Regardless of how much we wish this nightmare would go away, our enemy will stay forever on the offensive until he hurts us so badly we surrender, or we kill him first.”
More recently, in May this year, Kelly gave this chilling warning about terrorism: “It’s everywhere. It’s constant. It’s nonstop. The good news for us in America is we have amazing people protecting us every day. But it can happen here almost any time. He said the threat from terrorism was so severe that some people would “never leave the house” if they knew the truth.
But for all his experience, it may well be that General Kelly is now facing one of the the biggest challenge of his life — bringing order to the White House.
Having Scaramucci fired was the easy part, now he must hope he can discipline Mr Trump. That will be a much tougher task.
After all, Mr Trump is a man who has proven he doesn’t change or want to change. Despite pressure and predictions, he didn’t change before his election, during his election or after it, so he seems determined not to alter what he sees as his “winning” formula.
That, after all, is why he’d brought Scaramucci on board in the first place, a man who’d pledged to “let President Trump be President Trump”. And on Monday, even as all hell was breaking loose around him, the president tweeted there was “no White House chaos”. This merely shows that the president appears to not even recognise “chaos” any more.
But if there’s one thing military men can’t abide it’s chaos.
So can General Kelly win where all others have failed? On his first day on the job he has shown he can certainly move fast to try to restore order.
He certainly has clout. Scaramucci is gone not because Mr Trump found his comments about Priebus and Bannon “inappropriate”. Let’s not forget it was Priebus, not Scaramucci, who got fired after these comments. The President chose Scaramucci because he was his kind of guy. He fired him only because General Kelly demanded his head and got it.
But what will happen when the general has to move to the next level and tries to restore order right at the top? That may be a mission beyond even the skill sets of a general with 45 years experience in the Marines.
And what if General Kelly fails and Mr Trump sends him off to the long grass? That could spell the beginning of the end for Mr Trump because by then too many people will be waiting there for the president.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved