Jason Dempsey: John Kelly lent his military credibility to Trump. It's too late now to stay neutral.
John Kelly is in a bind: The retired four-star general, who served as President Trump's first homeland security secretary and second White House chief of staff, is at the center of the uproar over reports last week that Trump made disrespectful, sometimes disparaging remarks about U.S. military service members on various occasions, including, according to the Atlantic, "I don't get it. What was in it for them?" as he stood with the retired general at the grave of Kelly's son, a Marine lieutenant killed while serving in Afghanistan.
So far, Kelly won't confirm or dispute that reporting, leaning on his career of service in the Marine Corps as a reason to stay silent: According to friends and associates, Kelly believes that it's inappropriate for a retired general to speak out against a sitting president in the midst of an election. But, for Kelly, that ship has sailed. He chose to serve in a political capacity, lending the credibility he gained during a lifetime in uniform to Trump's partisan cause. No one can fault Kelly for wanting to keep his son's memory out of partisan politics, but it's too late for Trump's former top White House adviser to be seriously considered as someone who is politically neutral.
Kelly may want to take advantage of the sense that military men and women need to stay out of the grubbiness of party politics - like retired general Joseph Dunford Jr., former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who in a recent interview declined to comment on Trump's record, saying he felt obliged to "behave in public the same way I did while on active duty. . . . I feel I should not engage in any partisan politics." But while there's a logic to Dunford studiously avoiding politics at this stage, it doesn't apply in Kelly's case. Dunford served Trump while in uniform, in an explicitly nonpartisan position. Were he to speak now, either in favor of or against Trump, Dunford would risk disrupting the nonpartisan nature of military service and set a precedent that could hamper the ability of the current Joint Chiefs chairman to maintain a relationship of trust with Trump.
By contrast, Kelly served Trump in inherently political appointed positions, helping advance the president's agenda, particularly on controversial issues related to immigration, both while running the Department of Homeland Security and as White House chief of staff, and, as chief of staff, broadly managing the entirety of the president's agenda.
Now, in a situation where Kelly is uniquely capable of shedding light on the truth in the current controversy - stating for the record whether he has heard the untoward comments about service members and veterans attributed to Trump - Kelly is using his previous military service to avoid being held to the same standards of accountability as other political appointees. In this, he is hanging onto the prestige of his military identity while picking and choosing whether and when he should get treated like other high-ranking political figures.
Recall that Trump brought Kelly, former defense secretary Jim Mattis and former national security adviser H.R. McMaster into the administration at the start and repeatedly referred to them as "my generals." Trump borrowed their stature and, by extension, the stature of the military, the most trusted public institution in America. In exchange, these men assumed powerful civilian roles in the federal government. And while they sought to maintain the prestige that comes with service as flag officers, they forfeited the ability to credibly remain at arm's length from the "cesspool of domestic politics" - which is how Kelly described the political landscape in 2016, not long after he left active military service.
To the extent that Kelly is using his military identity as a shield in this debate, he's subverting, at least inadvertently, an important component of American democratic discourse, whereby the open and often messy arguments about the direction of the country and the performance of its elected leaders provide a degree of public accountability that has historically been the envy of the world. A military that stands aside from these political debates serves two purposes. It both keeps the threat of force out of the marketplace of ideas while also preventing politicians from implementing partisan litmus tests for military officers. There is, however, no middle ground whereby former officers can enter the political fray but then claim the mantle of nonpartisan servants when things do not turn out the way they would like.
Kelly is certainly in a difficult spot. Colleagues, the public and members of the press are urging him to settle a factual dispute with implications not just for the coming election but also for how the military will be seen in the future: In the past, Trump has openly called distinguished former service members like the late senator John McCain "losers." The president struggles to defend his decision skip a 2018 ceremony at Aisne-Marne military cemetery, honoring allied war dead, that his counterparts - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron - attended. And he is reported to have uttered words that give insult to the motivations of Kelly's son, and many others, to serve.
If Kelly declines to clear up the matter, at least to the extent that he can, he wouldn't be fulfilling his duty as a former military commander as much as he would be validating the notion (and Trump's tactic) that former military officers can be used as props for domestic political fights, dutifully offering their prestige to political actors but avoiding any personal agency in circumstances where other political appointees would be expected to explain the posture of the president they chose to serve.
J ason Dempsey is a senior adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security.