White House

John Kelly Was President Trump's Top Authoritarian Fearmonger. Good Riddance.

Trump's chief of staff was there to add a veneer of respectability to some of the president's worst positions.


John Kelly

President Donald Trump announced to reporters on Saturday that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly will step down by the end of the year, ending months of speculation about Kelly's potential exit date.

The popular narrative around Kelly, a retired Marine general, is that he brought military-minded discipline to a chaotic White House. It's not clear that Kelly's influence ever extended outside his own person. One likely candidate to replace him—Nick Ayers, chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence—is instead leaving the administration.

As Kelly heads for the exits, let's take a moment to shove aside the content-free beltway obsession with who holds the cards in this feckless administration and deal with the realities of the man. Kelly was an authoritarian merchant of fear whose policy prescriptions revolved around using the government to monitor and control the behavior of the populace, citizens and immigrants alike. While their demeanors may differ, his exit is not a result of any genuine political disagreements with Trump. Much like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Kelly and Trump clashed over means, not ends. Anybody who loves liberty should be glad to see Kelly go, irrespective of who may replace him.

Before Kelly was elevated as chief of staff, he was installed as Trump's head of the Department of Homeland Security. In that role, he told Americans we should all thank our lucky stars for poorly trained Transportation Security Administration employees and their crotch-fondling ways. In an April 2017 speech, he told legislator critics of TSA behavior to either change the law or "shut up and support the men and women on the front lines." He was more than happy to scare Americans with fears of terrorists coming to kill us all to justify government intrusions into our privacy.

Perhaps it would be easier for Congress to support the TSA if it weren't a hotbed of corruption and scandal and lawmakers weren't being stymied by attempts to investigate retaliation against workers who blow the whistle on misconduct at the agency.

Kelly's a massive drug warrior, again using fear (this time, of opioid overdoses and drug lords) to try to sell us all on massive, expensive, and ultimately fruitless drug interdiction efforts. As a military man, he tended to see the drug war as something that just needed more troops. Reason's Jacob Sullum noted back in 2016 that "Kelly thinks a determined government can overcome economics." He simply believes that more money and more drug seizures would win the drug war, despite everything we've learned about that approach after four decades and a trillion dollars in spending.

He brought that attitude to DHS and then into the White House and turned it into a justification for the administration's cruel immigration enforcement tactics. Kelly, like Trump, is a big believer in the myth that illegal immigrants are crime magnets, going so far as to instruct staff of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to try to track down examples of egregious cases in order to sell a crackdown. And he was a full supporter of separating children of illegal immigrants from their families in order to deter people from coming to the U.S.

To the extent that Kelly brought "discipline" and "professionalism" to the White House, it was in support of policies that deprived people of liberty. His role was to find the correct levers of power to pull so that Trump could pursue his authoritarian agenda through the proper government channels instead of by diktat or angry tweet.

When Sessions was shown the door, Sullum noted that his replacement might not be any better than him (a prediction that is shaping up to be true), but could hardly be worse. We don't know who Kelly's replacement is going to be, but the cause of liberty is most certainly better off without him in the White House.