The firing of White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci on Monday after just ten days of service was objectively hilarious. He’s one of the dumbest and worst people in America, and no one should shed any tears over his situation. But the move by Donald Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, to rid the White House of Scaramucci shows that the former Homeland Security secretary is prioritizing the expungement of personnel who might get in the way of Trump’s agenda, whatever that may be. So long as Kelly can manage to stick around, it bodes poorly for the rest of us.
Since his confirmation as Homeland Security secretary in January, Kelly has been one of the few top-level officials in the administration to consistently stay in Trump’s good graces. He has little political ties to either the alt-right or the GOP establishment that has been engulfed in a civil war since the administration began, and unlike other high-level cabinet members like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Kelly has managed to refrain from annoying Trump too much. Part of this probably stems from the fact that he’s a career military officer, and as we’ve learned, Trump loves uniforms.
Kelly, who was previously Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security, lends a veneer of credibility to an administration that has proved to be an embarrassing joke. Kelly is a retired Marine Corps general who has served posts in Iraq, the Pentagon, and as the commander of the United States Southern Command, which oversees military operations in South and Central America as well as the Caribbean. His nomination for Homeland Security secretary sailed through the Senate — only 11 senators, all Democrats, voted against it, showing the kind of respect that the D.C. foreign policy consensus has for him.
Kelly has proven himself to be ruthlessly efficient at a time when most of the executive branch is mired in dysfunction.
One of those who voted to confirm Kelly was Bernie Sanders, who has otherwise consistently opposed most of Trump’s cabinet appointments. “General [James] Mattis and General Kelly may not be the nominees I would have preferred for the departments of Defense and Homeland Security,” Sanders said in a statement. “But in a Trump cabinet likely to be loaded up with right-wing extremists… I hope General Mattis and General Kelly will have a moderating influence on some of the racist and xenophobic views that President Trump advocated throughout the campaign.”
But contrary to what Sanders had hoped for, Kelly’s record during his short tenure at Homeland Security showed that he was anything but a moderating influence on Trump’s worst instincts. Kelly has supported Trump's idea to build a wall on the Mexican border, has floated the idea of requiring visitors to the country to turn over their social media passwords, and has defended the administration’s travel ban. “I can tell you right now — because of court injunctions, for instance,” he told a House committee in June, “I am not fully confident in our ability to prevent those who seek to do us harm from taking advantage of our generous immigration and visa system.”
Worst of all has been the utter recklessness and inhumanity with which Immigration and Customs Enforcement has operated with since Kelly became the head of Homeland Security, which ICE operates under. As Julianne Hing wrote for The Nation last week, Kelly turned Homeland Security into a “deportation machine,” inflicting “apprehension and fear” on immigrant communities.
Immigration arrests have increased 40 percent since Trump’s inauguration, including more than 10,000 “non-criminal arrests” of people whose only crime is being in the United States. Among the many heartbreaking personal stories of families that have been torn apart by ICE, an Ecuadorian mother and her nineteen-year old son were deported together in June and sent back to a country they fled to escape gang violence.
All of this is contradictory to what Kelly told CNN in April while discussing the legal status of “Dreamers,” or young people who were brought to the United States when they were children, often never having known any other home. “If you are simply here illegally, we don’t really have the time to go after you,” he said then.
Kelly’s record shows that he has been anything but a moderating influence on Trump’s worst instincts.
In addition, Kelly has suggested “expediting” removals by bypassing immigration courts altogether. Since Kelly took over and suggested that ICE expand a program which effectively deputizes local law enforcement officials to enforce federal immigration laws, the program has nearly doubled its number of participating law enforcement agencies. The program, known as 287(g), was abused by former Sheriff Joe Arpaio to racially profile Latinx people in Maricopa County, Arizona; on Monday, ICE announced 18 new “partnerships” with police departments in Texas.
So, despite the respect he has from both parties, Kelly is right at home with Trump. Even more than that, he’s proven himself to be ruthlessly efficient at a time when most of the executive branch is mired in dysfunction.
Of course, this is still the Trump administration. It’s a very real possibility that Kelly and Trump won’t get along now that they’ll be in closer quarters, and he could be gone before the end of the year for some unforeseen reason. Even Kelly being a success for the administration has the potential to be a double-edged sword: given Trump’s propensity for subtweeting and sniping at people who have played a role in his victories for stealing media attention away from him, it’s not likely that Trump would take too kindly to a plethora of punditry congratulating Kelly if he’s able to turn around a sinking ship.
As bad as things have been over these last six months, they have the potential to get so much worse. The only thing standing between Kelly and helping the administration realize its full potential of being as cruel as possible — on issues like health care, immigration, refugees, tax reform, and setting us off down on a path towards multiple new wars — is the inflated ego and tenuous health of a 71-year old man who could die on the toilet at any point over the next three and a half years.
Considering the army of neocon ghouls who share Trump’s politics (but not his penchant for vulgarity) and are ready to step in as soon as that happens, there will come a time when the left finds itself up against an administration full of Kellys instead of goofy hacks like Anthony Scaramucci or Sean Spicer. And given what we know about what happens in countries that rely on the military to fill a void where credible political leadership has vanished, that should worry everyone.