Kelly leaves behind a flawed legacy. The good news: Under his guidance, the White House functioned more effectively than it had during the brief, unhappy tenure of his predecessor, Reince Priebus. The bad news: It remained unfathomably chaotic.
From the point Kelly was installed as chief of staff, following a dramatic bloodletting at the end of July 2017, he managed to bring a greater sense of order to the White House, and to stanch the flood of damaging, leaked stories that characterized the first months of the Trump administration, turning it into more of an irregular flow. …
The essential moment for understanding Kelly came in October 2017. After several American soldiers were killed in a raid in Niger, Trump used the occasion to attack former President Barack Obama’s handling of condolence letters for slain service members. Trump cited the combat death of Kelly’s own son, an event the retired general had avoided discussing publicly. Some pundits expected Kelly to rebuke Trump. Instead, Kelly staunchly defended him. He also attacked Representative Frederica Wilson, who had provided a damning account of Trump’s phone call to Myeisha Johnson, the widow of slain Sergeant La David Johnson. When video evidence debunked Kelly’s attack on Wilson, the White House said that it was inappropriate to question the chief of staff, because he is a veteran. A few days later, Kelly offered a historically illiterate and politically charged defense of Robert E. Lee on Fox News.
The episode also showed that the gulf between Kelly and Trump wasn’t as large as many analysts had assumed. Kelly was always a Trumpist in ideology—reflexively nostalgic for the past, committed to old-fashioned gender roles, skeptical of cultural change, and strongly anti-immigration. The difference between the men was largely about style and approach, not substance.