Retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, who served as President Donald Trump’s chief of staff and homeland security chief, was one of hundreds of administration officials invited to help give Trump a rousing send-off on his last day in office as the departing president skipped the inauguration of Joe Biden and instead ordered up a military salute to himself at Joint Base Andrews.
Kelly declined to attend; his 18 months at the White House left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“From a distance, it’s impossible to understand who he actually is. But when you work closely with him, you understand he’s a very, very flawed human being,” Kelly told CNN the day after the Jan. 6 siege of the Capitol.
“All I ever heard from some of the real devotees in the White House was, ‘You got to let Trump be Trump.’ Let me just say, this is what happens … as a result of letting Trump be Trump,” Kelly said of the deadly attack.
Kelly’s experience, hoping to help Trump make better, more informed decisions only to be blindsided at every turn by Trump’s erratic, impulsive nature, is a story repeated by many other national security officials who worked with him.
“He believes what he believes, and he will go and find people that will give him the opinion he’s looking for,” Kelly said. “You don’t survive by telling this president the truth, for very long, anyway.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper discovered early on that he would have limited influence with Trump.
The best he could expect to do would be to keep his head down and try to translate Trump’s tweets and bolt-from-the-blue orders into something resembling coherent policy, all while quietly pushing the Pentagon to adapt to the changing nature of warfare in the age of hypersonics and artificial intelligence.
“I can only control what I do,” an exasperated Esper said in an exit interview with Military Times after Trump fired him, post-election. “The president’s very transparent in terms of what he wants.”
By all accounts, Esper went beyond the call of duty to carry out Trump’s often mercurial wishes while at the same time attempting to maintain the integrity of the department and to shore up America’s strained alliances.
“I’m not trying to make anybody happy. What I’m trying to do is fulfill what he wants … and make the best out of it,” Esper said. “I mean, he’s the duly elected commander in chief.”
When Trump ordered 12,000 troops out of Germany to punish the NATO ally in his feud over defense spending, Esper came up with a plausible rationale to defend the very expensive move.
When Trump objected to the banning of Confederate flags on DOD and military installations, Esper crafted a policy that finessed the problem without mentioning the rebel colors.
The reward for his fealty was to hear Trump mockingly refer to him as “Yesper,” casting Esper unfairly as just another of the president’s yes men.
“Who’s pushed back more than anybody? Name another Cabinet secretary that’s pushed back,” Esper said in his own defense. “Have you seen me on a stage saying, ‘Under the exceptional leadership of blah-blah-blah, we have blah-blah-blah-blah?’”
But Esper, like many who labored on behalf of Trump’s agenda, eventually reached his breaking point.
Last June, after Esper pushed back against Trump’s desire to invoke the Insurrection Act to deploy active-duty troops to put down protests for racial justice, Trump appeared to hoodwink Esper and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley into accompanying him on a staged photo op after mostly peaceful protesters were cleared by force from the park in front of the White House.
The rank politicization of the military was an embarrassment to both men, they said, and both later apologized.
From that point on, Esper said he knew his days were numbered.
For Rex Tillerson, Trump’s first secretary of state, the break came when Trump, against his advice, met with Kim Jong Un with no plan other than to try to charm the North Korean dictator with promises of peace and economic riches after threatening him with “fire and fury.”
“We squandered the best opportunity we had on North Korea. It was just blown up when he took the meeting with Kim,” said Tillerson in an interview with Foreign Policy. “That was one of the last straws between him and I.”
Tillerson said he accepted the job as top diplomat to help the neophyte Trump but found the real estate developer and former reality TV star’s total inexperience and short attention span to be insurmountable obstacles.
“His understanding of global events, his understanding of global history, his understanding of U.S. history was really limited,” Tillerson said. “I started taking charts and pictures with me because I found that those seemed to hold his attention better. If I could put a photo or a picture in front of him or a map or a piece of paper that had two big bullet points on it, he would focus on that.”
“It’s really hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t even understand the concept for why we’re talking about this,” he said.
Tillerson’s account is one of many from former advisers, who uniformly described how national security briefings had to be dumbed down to engage the president.
“It’s really hard to have a conversation with someone who doesn’t even understand the concept for why we’re talking about this,” Tillerson said.
“Donald Trump is not really able, in most instances, to carry on discussions about policy,” offered former national security adviser John Bolton, whose scathing book detailing Trump’s erratic decision-making was dismissed as total fiction by the White House, which tried to block its publication on the grounds that it revealed classified information.
“When he disagrees with somebody, when he sees somebody as an adversary, it immediately becomes personal. That’s the only thing he understands,” Bolton said in an appearance on CNN in October.
“We couldn’t have a discussion on the Iran nuclear weapons program without Trump saying to anybody who was in the room that John Kerry needed to be prosecuted under the Logan Act for talking to the Iranians,” Bolton said. “I think it shows that the president doesn’t fully understand the nature of civil life in the United States. But I think it also reflects the sort of low cunning that exemplifies his thinking.”
For Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, the breaking point came when Trump inserted himself into the military justice system on behalf of a Navy SEAL who killed a teenage Islamic State prisoner but escaped a war crimes conviction when a medic in his unit, who had been granted immunity by prosecutors, suddenly volunteered that he caused the prisoner’s death by blocking his breathing tube in a “mercy killing” after the stabbing.
Spencer was fired for trying to broker a back-channel deal that would have kept Trump from overtly interfering in a review board that was deciding if the SEAL should be allowed to retire with full honors and keep his SEAL Trident insignia.
But flouting military protocol, Trump intervened and granted him full clemency, calling him “one of the ultimate fighters,” infuriating Spencer.
In his letter acknowledging his termination by Esper, Spencer wrote that Trump’s action was in opposition to the Constitution and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Spencer told CBS he didn’t think Trump “really understands the full definition of a war fighter.”
“A war fighter is a profession of arms, and a profession of arms has standards that they have to be held to and they hold themselves to,” he said.
The SEAL in question was described by one fellow SEAL as “toxic,” a term used for a special kind of bad military leader who should not be in command of any troops.
A 2012 Army manual describes toxic leadership as “a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors … The toxic leader operates with an inflated sense of self-worth and from acute self-interest. Toxic leaders consistently use dysfunctional behaviors to deceive, intimidate, coerce, or unfairly punish others to get what they want for themselves.”
Trump’s critics within the officer corps, who by law cannot publicly criticize their commander in chief, argue that under that definition, Trump himself would be removed from command were he serving in uniform instead of as president.
In the end, it was the deadly siege of the Capitol by Trump supporters, egged on by the president’s false claim of a stolen election, that proved too much for even some of the president’s most loyal servants.
“I respect the president. I worked for him. I’ve defended his policies, and there is much to be proud of,” said Alyssa Farah, who was a Pentagon spokeswoman before moving over to work in the White House.
Farah told Fox News that the ransacking of Congress and the threat to lawmakers was “a tragic day for our country” and, for her, “a breaking point.”
“I have spent time in fragile democracies in other parts of the world, and our country looked like those countries. That is not who we are. It is not what we stand for.”
Those who have worked the closest with Trump and know him the best all describe him as a driven man who is obsessed with winning.
“To Trump, life was a game, and all that mattered was winning,” wrote his former longtime fixer Michael Cohen in the forward to Disloyal, a book Trump’s Justice Department attempted to prevent from being published before the election.
“In these dangerous days, I see the Republican Party and Trump’s followers threatening the Constitution — which is in far greater peril than is commonly understood — and following one of the worst impulses of humankind: the desire for power at all costs,” Cohen wrote.
In testimony before Congress a year ago, Cohen prophetically warned, “Given my experience working for Mr. Trump, I fear that if he loses the election in 2020 that there will never be a peaceful transition of power.”
Jamie McIntyre is the Washington Examiner’s senior writer on defense and national security. His morning newsletter, “Jamie McIntyre’s Daily on Defense,” is free and available by email subscription at dailyondefense.com.