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John Kelly must go

The White House chief of staff has proven himself unfit for the job.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

I can’t tell you the exact moment it became clear that retired Gen. John F. Kelly had to resign his position as White House chief of staff.

Perhaps it was in October, when he lied and smeared Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL). Kelly claimed that during a dedication ceremony for a new FBI office in Miami, a ceremony where he and others were focused on the heroism of the two slain FBI agents after whom the office was named, Wilson “stood up there in all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building.”

Video of the event confirmed that Kelly was lying — Wilson didn’t take credit for getting the funding. She graciously extended credit to her colleagues, including Republican Reps. Carlos Curbelo and Mario Díaz-Balart, and devoted much of her speech to honoring the two agents for whom the office was named. Kelly was lying to smear her for criticizing President Trump — indeed, for criticizing Trump’s treatment of a war widow.

Compounding the issue was White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders telling reporters it was ”highly inappropriate” to call Kelly on his lies — because he’s a retired general. It was a shocking statement, one that undermined norms of civilian control of and oversight over the military. Kelly should have at least told the press he disagreed with Sanders, that he does not believe he is above scrutiny because of his military record. He did not.

Or maybe his time was up when he praised Robert E. Lee, who committed treason to defend the institution of slavery and the subjugation of black Americans, as an “honorable” man and blamed the Civil War on a “lack of compromise.” Or perhaps it was when he decried some DREAMers who failed to secure protection from deportation (in some cases because they feared that if they told the federal government they were undocumented, they could be deported) as “too lazy to get off their asses.” It was a shocking insult to more than a million Americans, who have lived here almost all their lives and contributed time and again to their communities and their nation.

But it became extremely, abundantly clear that Kelly had to go when he went to bat for White House staff secretary Rob Porter.

Porter is, according to both of his ex-wives and at least one ex-girlfriend, a domestic abuser. Colbie Holderness, his first wife, has said he repeatedly threw her on the ground and choked her, that he kicked her during their honeymoon, that he punched her in the eye, resulting in the bruises seen here:

Jennifer Willoughby, Porter’s second wife, filed an emergency protective order against him in 2010. “The first time he called me a ‘fucking bitch’ was on our honeymoon,” Willoughby wrote in a blog post about their marriage. “A month later he physically prevented me from leaving the house. Less than two months after that, I filed a protective order with the police because he punched in the glass on our front door while I was locked inside. … Just after our one year anniversary, he pulled me, naked and dripping, from the shower to yell at me.”

An anonymous ex-girlfriend, who dated Porter after his marriages, wrote to both Holderness and Willoughby describing his abuse, saying, “Rob was abusive, degrading, a liar and a cheater and during the course of my relationship with him, I found out that he was to others, too.” Porter is currently dating White House communications director Hope Hicks — someone who works under Kelly.

Kelly knew all of this. Both Holderness and Willoughby were interviewed by the FBI in January 2017 as part of the hiring process for Porter, and White House counsel Don McGahn learned of the allegations the same month. McGahn took no action, nor did he take any action when the ex-girlfriend contacted him in November. The FBI told the White House about the abuse in June 2017, and by the fall it was clear the allegations were preventing Porter from getting a security clearance.

“When McGahn informed Kelly this fall about the reason for the security clearance holdup, he agreed that Porter should remain and said he was surprised to learn that the 40-year-old had ex-wives,” the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey and Beth Reinhard report. “Kelly handed Porter more responsibilities to control the flow of information to the president.”

A few weeks ago, Kelly was informed by the FBI that they were recommending that Porter be denied full security clearance, and recommended the same about a number of other White House aides who, like Porter, had been working on interim clearances. “The White House chief-of-staff told confidants in recent weeks that he had decided to fire anyone who had been denied a clearance — but had yet to act on that plan before the Porter allegations were first reported this week,” Politico’s Eliana Johnson reports.

After all that, and even after the scandal broke in the news media, Kelly was still pushing within the White House to keep Porter on board. Axios’s Jonathan Swan reported that Kelly wanted Porter to “stay and fight.” Publicly, while Kelly said he was “shocked by the new allegations” and proclaimed, “There is no place for domestic violence in our society,” he reiterated, “I believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation.” When the scandal broke, he told the Daily Mail that Porter was “a man of true integrity and honor, and I can’t say enough good things about him.”

This isn’t the first time that Kelly has defended a sexual abuser working underneath him. In 2016, Kelly testified as a character witness for Todd Shane Tomko, a Marine colonel who pleaded guilty to “sending inappropriate and sexual messages to a female corporal under his command.” He called Tomko “a superb Marine officer.” Then last year, Tomko was arrested on charges of child molestation dating back at least 15 years. “Prosecutors told the court Tomko groomed his three victims,” WAVY’s Jason Marks and Kevin Green report. “They say he made them watch pornography and learn sexual acts as early as age 4. It wasn’t until they got older that these acts were carried out.”

Kelly has become a symbol of the Trump White House’s misogyny and white nationalism

On its own, the fact that Kelly shielded two reported abusers — and indeed, overrode FBI warnings that one of them, a high-ranking White House official, could not even be trusted with a security clearance — should be more than enough reason for him to resign. In the Porter case especially, we know that Kelly actively ignored repeated credible allegations of extreme violence. He showed no care or concern for Porter’s ex-wives, or for other women Porter may have, or may still, harm.

A fair question to ask is whether Kelly’s replacement would necessarily be any better. To serve in this White House is to serve a man who faces accusations of sexual assault or sexual harassment from at least 17 women. Perhaps President Trump will simply never appoint someone who takes the safety of women, including his own female employees, seriously.

But the direct effect of one chief of staff being replaced with another is not the only consequence of a Kelly resignation. If he resigns now, for this reason, it entrenches a norm that, at least when it’s publicly revealed, sheltering abusers and protecting them from any repercussions is a fireable offense, that the top job in the White House cannot go to someone who the entire public knows failed to protect victims of abuse.

Moreover, it acts as a deterrent for all of Kelly’s successors. If their consciences do not motivate them to remove abusers from the White House staff, perhaps a fear of meeting Kelly’s fate will.

I would go further, though, and say that Kelly, personally, has become an unacceptable symbol of the worst tendencies of this White House. When he was appointed, he was greeted with widespread bipartisan praise, as a “grown-up” capable of bringing order to an anarchic administration. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) said Kelly was “in a position where he can stabilize this White House.” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) called him “one of the strongest and most natural leaders I’ve ever known.”

But from his time as secretary of homeland security, when he aggressively stepped up immigration raids, including ones sweeping up non-criminals whom immigration enforcement agents weren’t even targeting, Kelly has aligned himself with the hardline anti-immigrant wing of the Trump administration. Not coincidentally, he has also repeatedly expressed extreme disrespect for Americans who are not white.

It was not a coincidence that both Rep. Wilson and Myeshia Johnson, the war widow for whom she advocated, are black women. It was not a coincidence that Kelly praised Gen. Lee, who fought to prevent the expansion of rights (including the right to not be owned as chattel) to black Americans. It was not a coincidence that he describes unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the US as children, a group that’s disproportionately Latino, as lazy.

Nor is it a coincidence, now, that Kelly appears to have repeatedly disregarded women and instead protected their abusers. He chose Rob Porter over the three women who accused him, and a Marine officer who admitted to harassing a female subordinate over that subordinate — who was also a fellow Marine, and much more worthy of Kelly’s loyalty, camaraderie, and brotherhood.

The Trump administration recoils from accusations that it does not care about nonwhite Americans or women. Instead of getting defensive, this time it should try to prove its critics wrong by ejecting a man who has exemplified those tendencies, who has repeatedly disrespected black and Latino Americans and shown no concern for the physical safety of women. The absolute least it can do is force John Kelly to resign.