Something is rotten in the West Wing of the White House, and the man brought in to provide order and decorum is now part of the problem.
Like many conservatives who support much of President Donald Trump’s policy agenda but abhor the man, I was hopeful when John Kelly replaced a weak Reince Priebus to become a strong chief of staff to an undisciplined president. But this week, I’ve been stunned at Kelly’s behavior. His words and actions have left me shaken.
First, the chief of staff was recorded musing that some of the young people who failed to apply for relief under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program did so because they “were too lazy to get off their asses.”
Kelly, like me, grew up in an era when a sombrero-wearing peasant taking a siesta under a cactus was the universal symbol of Mexican sloth. “Lazy” and “Mexican” were considered nearly synonymous in large swaths of America. But times have changed, or so I thought. Now the most frequent charge against Mexicans, especially immigrants, is that they “steal” American jobs by working harder and for less pay than others.
So why would Kelly blurt out this racist stereotype against “dreamers” — those brought here by their parents illegally when they were children — 80 percent of whom were born in Mexico? And why would he not have the decency to apologize after the fact?
In any previous administration, a blatantly bigoted remark like Kelly’s would have brought quick outcry and swift retraction, if not harsher consequences. But not in Trump world, where cheap shots, even racial slurs, have become normalized, starting with the president.
A day later, a new story emerged of Kelly’s faulty moral compass. This time, it was not just words but failure to act that should cause serious concerns about Kelly’s judgment.
Midweek, stories alleging domestic abuse by White House staff secretary Rob Porter appeared in both foreign and domestic press. In response, Kelly put out a statement, saying: “Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante (sic) and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”
Porter has denied the allegations, but the charges appear credible, given they come from three women — two former wives and an ex-girlfriend — and include corroborating evidence: a photograph of one of Porter’s wives with a black eye and swollen cheek, a call to 911, and a restraining order obtained by his second wife after he became violent and refused to leave their apartment, violating a separation agreement.
Worse, the FBI informed the White House, presumably Kelly, that Porter was not eligible for the highest security clearance because of the restraining order. Yet Kelly kept Porter on and, inexplicably, expanded his portfolio.
For an administration that is in office largely because Hillary Clinton mishandled classified documents, Kelly should have been sensitive to the appearance of keeping in his job a man who could not secure permanent clearance to handle the most sensitive intelligence documents. But apparently, he was not; according to reports, Kelly tried to talk Porter out of leaving and even allowed Porter’s current romantic interest, White House communications director Hope Hicks, to draft the official White House response to Porter’s departure.
Kelly, by all reports, served his country honorably during a long and valiant military career, and he has brought better order to the White House’s functioning, but these recent incidents require some serious soul-searching. If Kelly is the upstanding man many of us believed him to be, he owes us an explanation and a sincere apology.
Late Wednesday, Kelly issued a halfhearted statement that simply obfuscated by claiming Porter had misled White House officials about his history. If Kelly can’t do the manly thing and admit his errors in judgment, then maybe he’s not the best guy for the job of chief of staff. This White House needs at least one person who knows right from wrong.
His making bigoted remarks and his turning a blind eye toward domestic abuse certainly don’t make me confident that he can set an example for others.
Linda Chavez is chair of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
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