After leading the Department of Homeland Security in 2017, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly served as Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff for 17 months. Once he'd parted ways with the then-president, Kelly had little to say about his former boss and place of employment.
At least, that is, Kelly bit his tongue for a long while.
As regular readers may recall, his reticence did not last. The more unhinged Trump became, the more willing his former chief of staff became to condemn the former president, accusing Trump of, among other things, “poisoning“ people’s minds. Kelly ultimately added that Trump has “serious character issues“ and is not “a real man.”
But as it turns out, the retired general, after having served at Trump’s side for a year and a half, doesn’t just think the former president is an awful person, he also has serious concerns about the kind of abuses the Republican engaged in while in office. The New York Times reported:
While in office, President Donald J. Trump repeatedly told John F. Kelly, his second White House chief of staff, that he wanted a number of his perceived political enemies to be investigated by the Internal Revenue Service, Mr. Kelly said. Mr. Kelly ... said in response to questions from The New York Times that Mr. Trump’s demands were part of a broader pattern of him trying to use the Justice Department and his authority as president against people who had been critical of him.
According to the Times’ report, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, Kelly said Trump specifically wanted to “get the IRS” on former FBI Director James Comey and his deputy, Andrew McCabe.
If these names sound at all familiar in this context, it’s not your imagination: The Times reported over the summer that Comey and McCabe faced unusual IRS audits, receiving the kind of scrutiny few Americans ever experience.
The Times’ new report went on to note, “Mr. Kelly said he made clear to Mr. Trump that there were serious legal and ethical issues with what he wanted.” The then-president “regularly” made the demands anyway, seeking investigations against his perceived foes, leading Kelly to remind his boss what he wanted “was not just potentially illegal and immoral but also could blow back on him.”
The former chief of staff added that, in addition to Comey and McCabe, Trump wanted the IRS and the Justice Department to target former CIA Director John O. Brennan, Hillary Clinton, Jeff Bezos, and FBI officials including Peter Strzok and Lisa Page.
I can appreciate why it’s easy to become jaded in response to reports like these. Americans have seen an avalanche of Trump scandals over the course of the last several years, and many of those controversies haven’t amounted to much, despite their merits.
But it’s nevertheless worth pausing to appreciate the significance of a story like this one:
Impeachable offense: A former White House chief of staff has now said, on the record, that a former president committed an impeachable — and possibly even criminal — offense while in office. Indeed, when Richard Nixon tried related abuses, they were included in the articles of impeachment that ultimately forced his resignation.
Irony: Republicans were convinced that the Obama White House used the Internal Revenue Service to target political foes. That never happened, though it now appears Trump committed the offense that the GOP falsely accused Obama of committing.
Similarly, when the FBI executed a court-approved search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, Republicans furiously insisted that the Biden White House had turned federal law enforcement into a partisan weapon. That’s long been ridiculous, but if Kelly’s account is correct, we now have fresh evidence of Trump trying to weaponize federal law enforcement for his own partisan purposes.
Timing: Kelly has been a private citizen for nearly four years, after having departed the White House in January 2019. Maybe he could have said something about this sooner?
Ongoing disdain: The former White House chief, reflecting on his former boss, also told the Times, “If he told you to slit someone’s throat, he thought you would go out and do it.”
If Trump is looking for a 2024 endorsement from Kelly, the Republican should probably keep his expectations low.
By way of a defense, a spokesperson for the former president told the Times that the retired general is “irrelevant” and a “psycho.”
The questions about the Comey and McCabe audits are currently under an inspector general review. A spokesperson for Trump, meanwhile, denied that the former president had ever discussed misusing the IRS.