Stop Grading John Kelly on a Curve

On Thursday night, I heard Mara Liasson, NPR’s National Political Correspondent, speak at an event at the Smithsonian about journalism in 2017. As a reporter covering politics these days, Liasson spends most of her time trying to understand the Trump presidency. In detailing the functioning (such as it is) of the administration, she employed the conventional wisdom that Chief of Staff John Kelly, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are the “Committee to Save America.” While it’s true that these figures represent the more competent and credentialed wing of the executive branch, this framing has allowed the administration at large, and these figures in particular, to avoid criticism and adequate scrutiny. 

A Pleasant and Useful Fiction

It’s worth remembering that this idea was originally used by Republican officials (and even Trump himself) to sidestep questions about Trump’s fitness for office. Sure, they’d argue, Trump would be President, but we could rest easy because of the “adults in the room.” 

This was plainly never true. Secretary Tillerson has never demonstrated an ability to influence the President’s decision making, especially on issues of substance. He opposed both withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and decertifying the Iran nuclear deal, and Trump hasn’t even allowed him to choose deputies in his own department. Secretary Mattis was supposed to be the soldier-scholar that Trump respected enough to make rational national security decisions. Instead the President has attacked a Syrian airbase without a coherent policy, made and failed to follow through with military threats against North Korea, revealed Israeli intelligence assets to the Russian government, made demonstrably untrue statements about military readiness on Twitter, and blamed “the generals” for a military operation that resulted in US casualties. McMaster was initially successful at removing charlatans like K.T. McFarland and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, but his relationship with Trump quickly soured, and it seemed likely that he would be removed from his post until Gen. Kelly became Chief of Staff and Steve Bannon was fired. Gen. Kelly is the only Trump official for whom this theory is remotely plausible, and still under his tenure Trump gave his “Rocket Man” speech to the UN (where delegates openly laughed at him), tore up the Iran deal, and botched the federal government’s response to  the crisis in Puerto Rico. 

Suffice to say, the Republican theory that these men would keep the most critical aspects of the government running smoothly while Trump aided their pilfering of programs for the poor and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act to finance upper-class tax cuts has not been borne out. 

These Are Political Actors

Even if these four were keeping up their end of the GOP’s harebrained scheme, they would still be political appointees whose actions need to be criticized and judged. Before he was given the worst job on the planet, Gen. Kelly was the Secretary of Homeland Security, where he was overseeing an ethnic cleansing campaign perpetrated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Secretary Mattis is a longtime Iran hawk, and prior to its signing was an opponent of the Iran deal. That’s not a disqualifying position, of course, but it does occupy one end of the spectrum of debate on regional security, and should be open to critique by opponents. 

Finally, few cabinet members deserve more criticism than Secretary Tillerson. Not only is he the worst Secretary of State, he’s also overseeing a complete dismantling of the department. Though his assessment of the President is correct, Tillerson’s tenure as the nation’s top diplomat has done more to undermine the United States’ global standing and ability to shape world events than perhaps any other cabinet member. His incompetence and open hostility toward the civil servants he oversees shouldn’t be defended, along with the performances rest of his fellow “adults,” by mere existence of the looming threat of an impetuous President and his network of unqualified stooges. 

You Can’t Work for Trump With Your Dignity Intact

What I found most shocking about Liasson’s comment was that it came in the wake of Gen. Kelly’s press conference, where he defended the President’s most recent attack on a Gold Star family. While the bulk of these revelations came Friday, it was clear at the time that Kelly was at worst lying and at best intentionally ignoring aspects of the incident he couldn’t defend. Now that it’s clear that Kelly mischaracterized Congresswoman Wilson’s actions, lied about remarks she’d made in the past, and flatly ignored the stated opinions of the grieving family, it hardly makes sense to continue treating him as if accepting a political appointment in the West Wing is a form of self-sacrifice to be revered. Whether Kelly did this because he wanted to use his reputation to defend a man who callously brought up his son’s death on television, or because he felt pressured to do so either by Trump or his position as Chief of Staff is immaterial. Kelly is a member of the Trump administration who decided to take part in the President’s latest controversy by attacking the president’s critics. That’s a fine thing for a Chief of Staff to do, but there’s no reason we should defer to his interpretation of events simply because his President is incompetent. 

Now the administration is openly chastising the press for daring to criticize its officials. This White House has never handled criticism well, but the media and Republican office holders have been contributing to this sense that certain administration officials are off limits because we need them. They’re wrong. The members of Trump’s administration, regardless of their pedigree or demeanor, are public officials. Moreover, they decided to work for Donald Trump. Under any other President their actions and conduct would be the subject of public debate, they shouldn’t get a pass just because their boss is unfit for office.  

(Illustration by Donkey Hotey)


About Matt Miller

I'm a politics and policy staffer from Philadelphia, who's now a writer for High Faluter and aspiring journalist in Washington, DC. My hobbies include running, pretending I know about wine (or, insert any subject), and yelling about Paul Ryan. I was told to write five sentences, but I wrote three annoyingly long ones instead.