It’s become increasingly unclear why John Kelly still works at the White House. While he was expected to clean up the Trump administration and act as the “adult in the room” when he became White House chief of staff in July 2017, he eventually became embroiled in various scandals, proving himself no different than the other characters surrounding the president. His influence in the West Wing seems to have waned drastically, and this spring he reportedly “blew up” at Trump in the Oval Office, and took to calling the president an “idiot” behind closed doors. Kelly even told former colleagues that he wanted to continue serving as secretary of Homeland Security, “but I did something wrong and God punished me, I guess.”
Now, according to Politico, his anger toward Trump has morphed into something worse: indifference.
But Kelly’s status in the White House has changed in recent months, and he and the president are now seen as barely tolerating one another. According to four people close to Kelly, the former Marine general has largely yielded his role as the enforcer in the West Wing as his relationship with Trump has soured. While Kelly himself once believed he stood between Trump and chaos, he has told at least one person close to him that he may as well let the president do what he wants, even if it leads to impeachment — at least this chapter of American history would come to a close.
There are other clues that he’s not all that invested in his boss’s fate, like his new midday workout habit.
In recent months, his Secret Service detail has often been spotted standing outside the gym in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in the middle of the day — and White House officials who pass it on the way to meetings view his late morning workouts as an indication of him having thrown in the towel on trying to have any control inside the West Wing.
However, Kelly hasn’t given up on everyone in the Trump administration. He reportedly advised his successor at Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, not go before the press to answer questions about Trump’s policy of separating families at the border — which turned out to be a disaster for her.
Nielsen is so close to Kelly that she spent Christmas with his family last year, but he’s been unable to prevent her from becoming a target within the Trump administration. During Hurricane Katrina, Nielsen was George W. Bush’s special assistant to the president for prevention, preparedness, and response. The Bush connection is a huge negative mark in Trump World, and Politico reports that some of Trump’s allies are trying to use this to scapegoat Nielsen. They’re arguing the only problem with the separation policy is implementation, and the Katrina connection shows Nielsen is terrible at it.
Nielsen is said to have argued against the “zero tolerance” policy that led to children being ripped from their parents at the border, and two days after its implementation, Trump reportedly berated Nielsen so harshly at a Cabinet meeting that she came close to resigning. According to Politico, some called it “the most uncomfortable scene they have witnessed in their professional lives.” (Considering that these people work in the Trump administration, that’s even worse.)
While Kelly seems unable to stop the attacks on his protégée, he does not appear to be interested in ending the situation at the border. A day after Nielsen claimed, falsely, on Twitter that, “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border,” she pretended during Monday’s briefing that the administration isn’t “intending to send a message” by separating parents and children. “I find that offensive,” she said. “Why would I ever create a policy that purposely does that?”
Nielsen’s shock is undercut by Kelly (among many other Trump officials) saying repeatedly that the policy was meant as a deterrent to families thinking of crossing the border. In March 2017, when Kelly was still at Homeland Security, he said exactly that during a CNN interview.
“Yes I’m considering [separating children from their families], in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network,” Kelly said. “I am considering exactly that. They will be well cared for as we deal with their parents. … It’s more important to me, Wolf, to try to keep people off of this awful network.”
Less than a month later, Kelly told Senate Democrats the family-separation policy wasn’t under consideration (though according to recent reports it was always part of the plan). Then Kelly lied to CNN, saying he never talked about the policy as deterrence.
“I don’t think I have said that,” Kelly said. “Wolf Blitzer first asked me about this and I said everything’s on the table, we might under certain circumstances do that, but I don’t think I’ve ever said as a deterrent or something like that.”
Last month, Kelly went back to his original position, in an interview defending the new “zero tolerance” policy. “A big name of the game is deterrence,” he told NPR. “It could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent. A much faster turnaround on asylum seekers.”
Kelly may feel like he’s incapable of keeping the chaos from enveloping the Trump administration, but he’s also fueling it.