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Kelly’s Toxicity Corrodes Confidence in Trump’s Generals as Guardians of the Galaxy

Israeli politicians know better than to clash with families of fallen soldiers, but Trump and Kelly went there

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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John Kelly, White House chief of staff, in Washington, D.C., Oct. 19, 2017.
John Kelly, White House chief of staff, in Washington, D.C., Oct. 19, 2017. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

John Kelly’s honeymoon with Donald Trump’s critics was sweet but short-lived. The White House press corps and much of anti-Trumpian America was swept off their feet ten days ago, when Kelly first appeared before the media to dispel rumors that he and the president had fallen out. Pundits praised the tough general’s calm demeanor and thanked God that a solid and responsible military man of his caliber is standing next to Trump, ready to restrain him. But the love affair quickly turned into a hate story after Kelly faced reporters on Thursday, this time to defend Trump’s alleged callousness towards the families of fallen U.S. soldiers. From an officer and a gentleman, Kelly transformed overnight into a collaborator and despot’s apprentice.

The backdrop to the rise and fall was another “Israeli” trait of the Trump era. It may be a novelty in the U.S., but most Israeli politicians have learned the hard way to steer clear of confrontations with bereaved families of fallen soldiers. Trump entered this dangerous arena already burdened by his bad record of clashes with the parents of Humayun Khan, the Muslim officer killed in Iraq in 2004, who spoke at last year’s Democratic Convention. The issue, thorny for anyone but Trump, came back to haunt him following his conversation with the family of La David Johnson, one of the four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger two weeks ago under yet-to-be-explained circumstances. Trump tried to rebuff criticism about his reported failure to talk to bereaved families by inventing that his predecessors Obama and Bush had been even more derelict than he was. In this context, Trump said that Obama had not spoken to his Chief of Staff after his son Robert was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. And even though Kelly had not received any advance notice that Trump was going to exploit his son’s death to score political points, he nonetheless came to the White House press room on Thursday to defend him, like the good soldier he is.

In his previous appearance, Kelly had captured the media’s heart with what was perceived as honesty, humility and a level of sophistication that was a breath of fresh air compared to the usual school yard type of arguments presented by Trump or his main White House spokespersons. Kelly’s second performance, however, was panned, perhaps more strenuously because it was such a letdown after his first. The former marine general seemed bitter, arrogant and patronizing. He suddenly embodied the high-handedness often ascribed to military officers, waking dormant liberal demons of a military junta with anti-democratic tendencies. At the end of his press conference, Kelly executed a bizarre ritual in which only journalists who personally knew so-called Gold Star families of fallen soldiers were allowed to ask questions. Despite Israel’s special sensitivity to soldiers killed in the line of duty, it’s highly doubtful that Israeli journalists would tolerate such an unnatural selection. Far too many American reporters collaborated, however, with Kelly’s humiliating hazing of their freedom and their honor.

Kelly saved most of his bitterness for Frederica Wilson, the African-American Democratic Congresswoman from Florida, who listened in on Trump’s conversation with the Johnson family. Wilson said that Trump had angered and saddened Johnson’s family by saying “he knew what he signed up for,” as if his death did not require investigation or justification because he had volunteered for duty. Despite the fact that Kelly actually contradicted Trump’s adamant denial and corroborated Wilson’s account, he lambasted the Florida legislator in the harshest of terms. He called her an “empty barrel.” He scolded her for listening in on a “private” conversation, even though she’d been asked to do so by the Johnson family. And even though he works for the most irreverent foul-mouthed bully to ever reside in the White House, Kelly still had the audacity to claim that he was “stunned” by Wilson’s behavior.

In the normal world before the time of Trump, an attack by a white official of an administration with a problematic record towards women and African-Americans against a black, female Congresswoman would be considered a strategic mistake. Today it’s immediately analyzed as playing to the electoral “base,” a designation that turns the attack into a stroke of political genius. In fact, Kelly probably would have emerged unscathed from his appearance were it not for his mischaracterization, intentional or not, of a speech that Wilson gave in 2015 at the consecration of a new FBI building. Kelly erroneously claimed that Wilson had taken undue credit for arranging a $20 million federal budget for the building, which a video of her speech proved she hadn’t. She did note, however, the role she played in getting the building named for two fallen FBI agents. The easiest thing for Kelly to do would have been to set the record straight, but in line with the tried and proven Trump method of turning any mishap into a crisis and any crisis into total meltdown, Kelly not only refused to apologize but White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders then made things much worse by claiming that questioning a senior general like Kelly was “highly inappropriate” in the first place. Which is when all hell broke loose.

Within a few short hours, Kelly underwent a miraculous metamorphosis. From a good guy he became a bad guy. Instead of being the exception to Trump’s dysfunctional rule, Kelly became its proof. He had been poisoned, the pundits opined, by Trump’s toxicity. Journalists fumed at Kelly’s Trump-style assault on their integrity, minority leaders were enraged by his attitude to Wilson and fans of the U.S. Constitution were mortified by the White House’s use of Kelly’s military rank to shield him from media queries. Officers are placed above civilian supervision and media scrutiny only in non-democratic countries, the analysts said.

Liberals exploited the opportunity to scratch Trump’s Teflon protection, provided by “his” generals, including Kelly, National Security Adviser McMaster and Defense Secretary Mattis. The very presence of three ostensibly experienced and responsible generals in the White House allowed people in America and around the world to sleep a little better at night with the knowledge that someone is watching over Trump to make sure he doesn’t instigate a horrific catastrophe. In Israeli terms, Trump’s generals are perceived much like Dan Shomron, the IDF Chief of Staff who counseled restraint in the First Intifada and the Gulf War or like the security trio of then Mossad chief Meir Dagan, Shin Bet director Yuval Diskin and army chief of staff Benny Gantz, who together put the brakes on Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to attack Iran. But if Kelly is willing to sell his soul, as the commentators saw it, and if he is now deploying the trusted Trumpian mix of lies and personal attacks, then he can no longer be trusted to serve as a Guardian of the Galaxy who will prevent a global disaster. Perhaps he and his fellow generals are actually exploiting Trump, and not the other way around, in order to promote their own militaristic agenda.

Undeterred, Trump continued his assault on Wilson. He dubbed her “wacky” and tweeted a picture of her in her signature cowboy hat on Saturday, standing next to Obama. White House sources told U.S. media that Trump was actually happy with the entire scandal. He certainly had reason to feel complimented after Kelly was described as no better than him. On Saturday, Trump also gave a preview of his coming attraction, tweeting that he is planning to release the final secret documents relating to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Trump will undoubtedly play a leading role in fomenting the excitement that will accompany the release of the documents, possibly regurgitating his assertion that Ted Cruz’s father played a role in the 1963 killing. Trump may admire Kelly and appreciate his willingness to take a media bullet for his boss, but he won’t let him steal the limelight for long. In the U.S. system of government, it is the president’s prerogative to demand exclusivity in playing a village idiot, a menace to society, a threat to world peace, or all of the above.

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