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John Kelly’s vigilante White House

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News
From left: Bob Woodward, President Trump, John Kelly (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty)

Bob Woodward is the most famous newspaperman alive — or not, for that matter. And so Woodward gets away with things in a work of nonfiction for which other journalists would be rightfully pilloried. He relies heavily on unnamed sources and reconstructs private scenes with total omniscience, which are tactics I’d advise any young reporter to avoid.

And yet, all that said, is there anyone who seriously thinks the quotes in Woodward’s soon-to-be-released book on the Trump administration don’t ring true? Is it at all surprising that the president’s own chief of staff, John Kelly, would refer to him (at least once) as an “idiot” who had gone “off the rails” and was living in Crazytown?

I’ve yet to see the workplace where senior managers don’t begin to reflect the behavior of their powerful bosses, consciously or not. So of course Kelly has resorted to throwing around insults behind the president’s back, and of course he’d think nothing of lying about it after the fact.

In Trumplandia, that’s all as normal as a Taco Tuesday.

Such is the powerful atmospheric force of the Trump vortex, which sucks in anyone with moral conviction — in this case, a four-star Marine general with an honorable reputation — and spits them back out, unfailingly, as something unrecognizable to themselves.

Here’s where we are now: Twenty months in, aides in the Trump White House have entered their third phase of rationalization when it comes to what they’re doing.

The first phase was delusion. A bunch of smart people (and also Sean Spicer) came to work for the president because they told themselves a story with no rational basis. They said that campaigns were just campaigns, and that presidents often grow in office, and that Trump might just turn out to be a more serious man than he seemed.

To be honest, I wanted to imagine this was possible too, until Trump started talking about his amazing ratings and using Twitter to rant at the television in the middle of the night. Serious is not his comfort zone.

Then came the second phase: denial. All right, Trump’s aides said, maybe he’s a few holes shy of a golf course, but that’s why it’s so important for us to stay here and help. We can shape the president. We can moderate his thinking, show him the way, and so on.

And now, apparently, we’re in phase three of the rationalizing: insurrection. The man must be stopped, and it can only be done from the inside. It’s our patriotic duty to remain here and protect the president from himself.

You want us on that wall. You need us on that wall. That was essentially the point of a remarkable — even historic — op-ed posted by the New York Times Wednesday, anonymously penned by a senior administration official practically crying out for help.

You heard this, too, in the recent revelation, reported in the Times, that Don McGahn, the White House counsel, had been talking for hours with prosecutors working for Robert Mueller. Reading between the lines of that remarkable story, it seemed that McGahn was offering a novel defense of his boss — and himself — in the Russia inquiry.

Sure, Trump had ordered him to fire the attorney general at one point, McGahn told Mueller’s team. Sure, Trump had raged on about seizing the investigation from the Justice Department. Yeah, the president routinely wanted to do things that would probably qualify as criminal obstruction of justice.

But that’s all OK, because McGahn didn’t follow orders! He didn’t act on anything his Ring Ding of a boss told him to do. He just nodded a lot and went on with his business.

And you can’t prosecute someone for wanting to obstruct justice. (Just like you can’t prosecute me for wanting to kidnap Mark Zuckerberg and force him to join 1,000 irritating group chats he doesn’t want to join, just so he knows what it’s like.) Trump didn’t commit any crimes, you see, because rock-solid Don McGahn wouldn’t let him.

Crisis averted!

The same theme is echoed in the early release of material from Woodward’s book. According to Woodward’s account, Trump was all set to totally obliterate NAFTA with one stroke of the pen. But Gary Cohn, his erstwhile economic adviser, literally stole the letter off the president’s desk before he could sign it, and I guess Trump just forgot that plunging the world into economic crisis was on his to-do list.

Crisis averted!

Then you have James Mattis, the grown-up defense secretary, who, according to Woodward, privately describes the president’s foreign policy acumen as being somewhere in the neighborhood of a grade schooler’s. (Mattis denies this. Contain your shock.)

Mattis apparently refused Trump’s impulse to assassinate the Syrian leader and withdraw all American troops from the Korean Peninsula.

And of course there’s Kelly, the nominal navigator of this badly listing ship, who is said to believe that the president can’t be talked into or out of anything, so the only way to govern safely is to keep certain information and decisions out of his hands.

You’re welcome, America!

Now, I do understand the argument here that the anonymous op-ed writer and a lot of my friends in the so-called Republican establishment make. Someone, they say, has to be the human guardrail here.

Better for serious men like Kelly and Mattis (and serious women like Kellyanne Conway and Nikki Haley) to be on the inside, insulating us from an imbalanced president, than to have them all storm out and leave us to the likes of sycophantic Stephen Miller, who may in fact be an extraterrestrial.

This is a reasonable way to look at things, advanced by a lot of reasonable people in Washington, and I don’t dismiss it.

My problem with the insurrection rationale, however, is that it subverts the rule of law just as much as Trump would if left to his own devices. It amounts to vigilante government. It says: We can’t stand by and wait for help to arrive in the person of the voters or the feckless Congress, so we’re going to leap out of the car and heroically wrest the presidency from the hands of the madman ourselves.

And like all vigilantism, this lends itself to chaos and abuse. Who decides which presidential order gets followed and which is too dangerous? Who draws the line between radical reform and outright recklessness? Who elected John Kelly to make those calls?

Only in banana republics do military juntas seize control of government and leave some titular leader in place to provide the illusion of legitimacy.

In a republic like ours, aides don’t get to secretly decide when the president should be granted his authority to act. We do.

So the harder and truly patriotic thing to do here, if you believe what Kelly and Mattis and the others apparently do, is to walk out the door and say publicly the same things you’ve said privately (or anonymously). Sound the alarm, tell the country exactly what it looks like inside those walls on a daily basis, and let Congress and the voters do what they’re supposed to do, which is to vote their collective conscience.

My guess is the voters hearing all this on the news will render a harsh verdict, probably as soon as November. Either way, all this furious rationalizing by the president’s handlers will ultimately lead them, in history’s judgment, to the inevitable last phase:

Abject shame.

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