Military and Police

The General Takes Charge

“In John Kelly, he has one who is not afraid to say what needs to be said regardless of if the boss likes it or not.”

It has been reported that John Kelly has offered some tough talk to President Donald Trump.

Kelly, a retired Marine general, is not one to be denied, and when he wants to talk to someone, it will happen. With Kelly sworn in as White House chief of staff on Monday, he demanded to speak to the president alone.

Kelly demanded that other advisers leave the room so he could speak to the president frankly. Trump hesitated at first, it is reported, but agreed when Kelly insisted.

It was an early indication that Kelly, always the Marine (after all, there are no ex-Marines), is not afraid to stand up to his commander-in-chief.

I can remember a message broadcasted by those old Armed Forces Network (AFN) commercials we used to watch when I was in the Army in Berlin. They said, “He isn’t going to want to hear this, but he has to know.” In other words, the commander needed to know what was going on, even if the information was not good. Maybe Kelly watched those TV spots too. In fact, I would bet he did.

Kelly made his mark immediately on Monday with the firing of newly appointed communications director Anthony Scaramucci and revising the dysfunctional command structure of the administration staff.

Frankly, this is how it is supposed to work. This is the only way it can work, and there is no better person than a Marine general to make sure the protocol is followed.

The chain of command is reported to be very clear now. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said all senior staffers, including the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and chief strategist Steve Bannon, would report to Kelly instead of the president.

Kelly “will bring new structure, discipline, and strength” to the White House, Sanders said.

“It definitely has the fingerprints of a new sheriff in town,” said Blain Rethmeier, who guided Kelly through the Senate confirmation process for the Homeland Security post. Rethmeier said that what stood out about Kelly during the time they worked together was the way Kelly commanded respect from everyone he encountered and the way he respected others.

Tuesday, after his installment as the chief of staff, Kelly drew praise from lawmakers of both parties.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC, expressed confidence that Kelly can help restore order, saying, “The Marines have landed at the White House. They have a beachhead.”

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois told CNN that Kelly “is in a position where he can stabilize this White House, that’s good for this country. The president has to be part of that.”

During Kelly’s military career, he established a reputation as an outspoken commander who didn’t shy away from unpopular opinions. Rethmeier said that Kelly also respects authority deeply “and that’s something that Trump sort of smells out if you respect him or not. If he disagrees with you [meaning Kelly], he’ll disagree respectfully,” Rethmeier said.

During Kelly’s confirmation hearing as head of Homeland Security, Kelly said, “I have never had a problem speaking truth to power, and I firmly believe that those in power deserve full candor and my honest assessment and recommendations. I also value people that work for me speaking truth to power.”

As an example of his no-nonsense approach, Kelly bluntly challenged members of Congress critical of the Trump administration’s aggressive approach to immigration enforcement to either change the laws or “shut up.”

Not a stranger to politics and the need for “buy-in” from other members of the government, Kelly tried to soften some of the president’s hard-line positions, even as he publicly defended them.

Mattis and Kelly, both retired generals, agreed in the earliest weeks of Trump’s presidency that one of them should remain in the United States at all times to help keep watch over things.

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn, said Monday that he discussed Kelly’s appointment with Trump and hoped Kelly “will do everything possible to bring the appropriate discipline and focus that needs to be at the White House there.”

“I hope that Gen. Kelly will absolutely, forcefully clean the place up,” Corker said. “And anybody who’s been a violator, who’s been a part of public backbiting, part of undermining, who’s been part of feathering their own nest at other people’s expense, I hope they’ll all be gone.”

Bill Galston, a former Clinton administration domestic policy adviser now at the Brookings Institution, said the ball is now in the president’s court to help Kelly succeed. “If the president is not prepared to accept an orderly policy process with all of the restraints on individual conduct and behavior, then the chief of staff will not have the power to implement policy,” he said.

What we are seeing—and I surely hope Kelly succeeds—is a steady hand guiding and controlling the White House staff. President Trump is clearly in charge, and the general fully respects that. But as any good commander, this one in command of the White House staff knows that not all news is good news. Not all things go smoothly. The mission comes first, and John Kelly is not one to put his own interests before the good of the country. He is not in the White House to add to his worth or marketability.

He is there to put in place an organized and protocol-driven chain of command. I would imagine there is no part of the White House staff that doubts who is in charge, who to report to, or what the ramifications will be if they go outside those lines.

President Trump has always shown a deep respect for the military way of doing things, the command structure, and the mission-driven approach professional military people have.

In John Kelly, he has one who is not afraid to say what needs to be said regardless of if the boss likes it or not. Just like the message of those AFN commercials. It is the right thing to do.

Jon Harris

Jon Harris is a Senior OpsLens Contributor and former Army NCO, Sergeant Morales Club member, civilian law enforcement officer, and defense contractor with over 30 years in the law enforcement community. He is published in Army Trainer Magazine, authored regular columns in several newspapers, and is the author of the Cold War novel Breakpoint. His adventures as a security contractor in Afghanistan and Iraq can be found on He holds a B.S. in Government and Politics and an M.S. in Criminal Justice and is currently completing his Juris Doctor degree.

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