clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

John Kelly has a history of believing men over women

The White House chief of staff once called women sacred. He hasn’t exactly lived up to the ideal.

Sean Spicer Holds Daily Press Briefing At The White House Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

“You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor,” White House Chief of Staff and retired Marine Gen. John Kelly said from the podium in the White House briefing room in October. “That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases.”

It was an odd line in an odd statement — one part poignant remembrance of his son, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, and another part an angry, disingenuous attack on a Congress member who had accused Trump of insensitivity during a condolence call with the widow of a slain soldier.

But Kelly’s “women were sacred” line feels particularly relevant now, months later, following Kelly’s role in the unfolding Rob Porter scandal.

The two ex-wives of Porter, the White House staff secretary, alleged that he physically and emotionally abused him, accusations that first appeared in the Daily Mail and were later verified by multiple news outlets. But Kelly released a statement vigorously defending Porter as a “man of integrity and honor” and reportedly urged Porter not to quit.

Kelly worked closely with Porter, who was in charge of vetting documents sent to President Trump’s desk. Kelly learned of the allegations at least as early as this fall, the Washington Post reported. (Other top aides knew even before that.) The abuse reports had turned up in an FBI background check that prevented Porter from obtaining a full security clearance. Kelly’s response, per the Post, was to give Porter more responsibility.

Kelly’s decision-making in the Porter situation is now under intense scrutiny, and the man hired to bring order to the White House is engulfed in a scandal partially of his own making.

Even before the Porter scandal, Kelly was involved in several incidents that suggested the limits of his professed belief in the sacredness of women. He defended a Marine colonel who sexually harassed female subordinates, according to a new report in the New York Times. He suggested allowing women in combat would result in pressure to “lower standards.” He told a false story about a female member of Congress that was meant to suggest she was a grandstanding empty suit. He also, of course, willingly went to work for a president accused by multiple women of sexual harassment and assault.

Kelly has reportedly said he’s willing to step down over the Porter fallout. But these past incidents raise questions about his judgment and what his selective notion of being a person of “integrity and honor” really means.

Kelly praised Porter — and pressed him to stay on

Statements by Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, Porter’s two former wives, have portrayed a pattern of domestic violence by Porter. Willoughby provided a copy of a 2010 protective order she filed against him; Holderness provided the Intercept with photos of herself with a black eye, which she said showed the result of Porter hitting her in 2005.

“Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor, and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him,” Kelly said in an initial statement provided to reporters.

Porter, who denied the “outrageous” allegations against him, nevertheless also decided to step down on Wednesday.

Axios’s Jonathan Swan reported that top White House officials, including Kelly, urged Porter to “stay and fight.” But Kelly and others knew of the allegations against Porter for months.

The FBI spoke to both Holderness and Willoughby as part of the security clearance process, which began when Porter joined the administration at the start of Trump’s tenure. According to the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey and Beth Reinhard, White House counsel Don McGahn learned of the allegations in January 2017; the FBI flagged them for the White House again in June 2017.

McGahn told Kelly of the allegations in the fall, citing that as the reason for the holdup in his security clearance. The Post reported that they both agreed Porter should stay on.

Kelly issued a new statement after Porter resigned that said he was “shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society.” He added in the statement that he stood “by my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming Chief of Staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation. I accepted his resignation earlier today, and will ensure a swift and orderly transition.”

Kelly was a character witness for an alleged harasser

The New York Times’s Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman reported Thursday that Kelly also served as a character witness in a 2016 court-martial for a Marine colonel and former commander of the Marines’ Wounded Warrior regiment.

Col. Todd Shane Tomko admitted to sending explicit messages to a female subordinate. (A charging document also indicated that Tomko forcibly kissed a female Marine corporal in October 2014.)

Kelly was among four active-duty and retired officers who testified on Tomko’s behalf at his 2016 court-martial. According to

Kelly, who testified via telephone from Boston, where he was set to speak at a Memorial Day service, said he had known Tomko for a decade and, while he never worked closely with him, had always observed his character to be upstanding.

”Socially, he’s a great Marine,” Kelly said, adding that he had a reputation as a “gunfighter” and upstanding leader.

Tomko was later charged, in 2017, with taking indecent liberties with a child.

Kelly said integrating women into combat units would lead to “lower standards”

As a general in the Marine Corps, Kelly predicted that integrating women into combat units would lead to “lower standards,” a change he suggested would be politically motivated. He wasn’t the only military leader to oppose the Obama administration’s move allowing women in combat. But it’s a reminder that he spent his career before the White House in an overwhelmingly male milieu where women weren’t always respected as equals.

“They’re saying we are not going to change any standards,” Kelly told reporters at the Pentagon in 2016, according to “There will be great pressure, whether it’s 12 months from now, four years from now, because the question will be asked whether we’ve let women into these other roles, why aren’t they staying in those other roles? Why aren’t they advancing as infantry people?”

That pressure, he said, would come from “agenda-driven people.”

The same worldview appears to have influenced Kelly’s remarks in October: “His view that women should be held ‘sacred’ implies they need protection because they are weak, an idea that contributes to negative stereotypes about women and their less-than-equal status in the military,” Kate Germano, who served for 20 years in the Marine Corps, wrote in the Washington Post at the time.

Kelly picked a fight with a black congresswoman, calling her an “empty barrel”

In October, Kelly criticized Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-FL), who had spoken publicly about a phone call between Trump and the widow of a slain soldier, La David Johnson, who died in a mission in Niger.

Wilson had criticized the president for his tone during the phone call, saying Johnson’s widow, Myeshia Johnson, had become upset. Trump escalated the feud, accusing Wilson of lying. (Johnson’s widow eventually said the call with Trump left her “upset and hurt.”)

Trump had Kelly attempt to clean up his mess from the White House briefing room. Kelly, after giving a poignant account of military service and describing the aftermath of his son’s death, harshly condemned Wilson:

It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life — the dignity of life — is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.

After mourning the disrespect toward women in the world today, Kelly went on to attack Wilson for lying and for her “selfish” behavior. He recounted the story of a 2015 dedication of an FBI field office, named for two law enforcement officials who died in a firefight. Kelly claimed that Wilson stood up at the event and bragged about her role in getting the money for the dedication, but neglected to praise the fallen officers. According to Kelly:

And a congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money — the $20 million — to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.

But video clips from the ceremony disproved Kelly’s account. As Vox’s Dylan Matthews writes, Wilson “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.”