While there is no love lost between former Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly and me, I would be the first to dispute Jared Kushner’s ridiculous claim that Kelly would ever shove a woman, much less the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump. The grimmer truth here is that Jared and Ivanka did everything within their considerable Javanka powers to neuter a man who, even in the best of circumstances, would have had a tough time excelling in a job that required far more finesse and intelligence than brute force.
That was one of my main beefs with Javanka. It did not matter who was chief of staff. If these two spoiled scions did not get exactly what they wanted in the West Wing during the day, they went straight to the East Wing during the evening to lobby their patriarch.
Such meddling might have been all well and good if Javanka had been in sync with Trump’s agenda. But too often, Jared would undermine the president’s tough-on-China policies on behalf of his once and future Wall Street benefactors, while Ivanka would push a steady stream of New York liberal Democratic causes to subvert Trump’s efforts to make America great again.
As for John Kelly, my biggest problem with this four-star bully—on that appellation, Kushner and I agreed—was his intense opposition to my key remit in the White House: advancing the Trump trade and manufacturing policy agendas.
Because Kelly had no training in economics, he easily fell prey to the facile globalism of National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, and Staff Secretary Rob Porter. I quickly became Kelly’s odd tariff guy out.
Because Kelly had no training in politics, he failed to understand the importance of trade policy in holding the high political ground of Blue Wall manufacturing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan that Trump won in 2016. It’s not for nothing we lost all three of those states in 2020.
Because Kelly did not know how to “let Trump be Trump”—as Corey Lewandowski once advised—there was no way Kelly was going to let me or anyone else with deviant trade policy thoughts anywhere near the Oval Office.
To say I would be in for a very rough time with the arrival of Kelly as chief of staff would be one of the great understatements of my life. Kelly tried to humiliate or fire me so many times I lost track.
What I do remember clearly is sitting with John at my right shoulder on December 2, 2018, at the end of a long table in Buenos Aires, Argentina. We were there with President Trump, who sat at the center of the table, flanked on either side by the rest of his trade team facing Chinese dictator Xi Jinping and his trade team.
Before the meeting began, a by then broken and broken-down Kelly, no doubt aware of his looming exit, apologized for treating me so poorly. In doing so, he further acknowledged that he had failed to see what George W. Bush might have called the real evildoers in the West Wing—the names Gary Cohn and Kushner, in particular, fell from his lips.
I thought at the time that while Kelly had done a very bad job, he was at his core a good man who had simply borne too much stress in his life—right to the breaking point. Too many combat tours. A son lost in war. The Javanka assault. And now Kelly was, as he once confessed in a jarring manner in a senior staff meeting, “in a very dark place.”
At the time, I really had nothing to say to him. I just gently put my hand on his forearm, looked him in the eyes briefly, and then turned my own eyes back to the Chinese Communists as the meeting began.
Kelly would be fired six days later.
As I look back on that day, I see Kelly as just another one of Trump’s generals who paradoxically was eager to break the chain of presidential command. Along with Gulf War hero H. R. McMaster, Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, and Mark Milley, this top brass would repeatedly ignore direct orders from their commander-in-chief.
Their treasonous conduct—a court-martial offense in the military—always reminded me of a quip U.S. Trade Representative Bob Lighthizer would often make. To Lighthizer, there were only two types of people in the Trump Administration: Those people who thought they had to save the world from President Trump and those who thought President Trump would save the world.
You could put every single break-the-chain-of-command commando, including McMaster, Mattis, and especially Kelly, into the “save the world from Trump” box, and wrap that box up with a neat and treasonous little John Bolton bowtie.
Editor’s note: This article is based on Peter Navarro’s memoir, Taking Back Trump’s America: Why We Lost the White House and How We’ll Win It Back.