Of all President Trump's multitudinous character flaws, it's the relentless dishonesty that does the most damage to anyone who works for him in the effort they must make to retain some shred of dignity as they labor in his service. You might to be able to spin or rationalize some of what Trump does—Sure, the Twitter stuff is nuts, but he's just speaking directly to the voters! Sure, he knows nothing about policy, but that's OK because his instincts are so sound! But you can't explain away all the lying, day after day after day—especially when you may eventually be called upon to step before the cameras and explain it, echo it, or even add lies of your own to the ever-growing pile.
There's a cycle that repeats itself in some variation again and again: Trump lies about something, then when it gets pointed out he doubles down, insisting that he didn't lie, then someone gets sent out to defend him and usually ends up telling more lies, then the White House insists that not only did no one tell any lies, but the media should just shut up about it. And before you know it, the cycle will begin all over again.
So let's quickly review what happened in the latest iteration of this miserable pattern, last week. At a press conference, Trump was asked why he hadn't said anything publicly about the killing of four American soldiers in Niger, nearly two weeks after it happened. He replied by lying about his predecessors, claiming that they (especially Barack Obama) never called the families of fallen service members, while he did. The next morning in a radio interview, he claimed, "I have called, I believe, everybody—but certainly I'll use the word virtually everybody." This too was false. Then Representative Frederica Wilson told told reporters that when Trump called the widow of Sergeant La David Johnson, he said the slain soldier "must have known what he signed up for," which came off sounding insensitive. Then Trump lied again, claiming that he never said that, despite the fact that the family confirmed it. He also said "I have proof" that Wilson wasn't telling the truth, yet another lie.
Which brings us to the person whose turn it was to defend Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly. If there were anyone who one would have thought could work for Donald Trump and emerge with their integrity and reputation intact, it might have been Kelly. Not a vicious partisan or a striving careerist, Kelly moved to the White House from the Department of Homeland Security to impose some discipline and order on a chaotic situation, and has apparently been trying (with little success) to rein in the president's worst impulses by restricting his access to shady characters and the kind of information that will get him too riled up. Kelly's willingness to take on the extraordinarily difficult task of managing the angry toddler in the Oval Office has been widely seen as an act of public service, a final tour of duty from a career military officer done in order to prevent great harm coming to the country.
But as Kelly proved on Thursday, there is no such thing as noble service to Donald Trump. To join him means to descend into his sewer of division and dishonesty. Once you work for Donald Trump, he infects you like a disease, one for which there is no cure.
When Kelly began his statement to the White House press corps by describing the process by which a fallen servicemember's body is brought back home, people watching were moved, particularly since Kelly's own son was killed fighting in Afghanistan. But then he revealed that when Trump told La David Johnson's widow that Johnson knew what he signed up for, he was actually following Kelly's advice about what to say. That confirmed what was obvious from the beginning: Trump was trying to say something that in the hands of someone with a shred of human empathy might have been comforting, but coming from him it sounded insensitive and even offensive. But perhaps more importantly, it confirmed that Trump was lying when he repeatedly denied that he had said it.
Then to make matters worse, Kelly tried to discredit Wilson in ways both absurd and dishonest. He said, "It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation," as though Wilson were eavesdropping, when in fact she heard it because she's a friend of the family—she was in a limousine with them when the call came in, and Mrs. Johnson put the president on speaker. Then Kelly lamented the lack of what used to be sacred in America, including that "women were sacred, looked upon with great honor." This was said with no apparent irony by a man who works for Trump, who not only has a decades-long history of demeaning women but is on tape bragging about his ability to sexually assault them with impunity, something he has been credibly accused of by a dozen different women.
Kelly followed that up by telling a story about Wilson's allegedly self-aggrandizing behavior at a dedication of an FBI building, in which he claimed that she said she got funding for the building with a phone call to President Obama. Even if the allegation were true, it would have been Trumpian in its pettiness, a way of saying, "Well, that person who's criticizing the president is a jerk, so nyah nyah nyah." Yet when video of the event emerged, Kelly's story turned out to be utterly false; in fact, Wilson said nothing about funding (which happened before she entered Congress) but instead gave a speech lauding bipartisan cooperation in getting the building named for two slain FBI agents and speaking admiringly of the agents' courage.
If you were tempted to feel sorry for John Kelly because his job babysitting Donald Trump is such an impossible one, that press conference would surely have cured you of the impulse.
It may have been inevitable that he'd be called upon to do it eventually; how many times have we watched as someone working for Trump comes (often grudgingly) before the cameras to either repeat things that aren't true or attest to their boss's magnificence? For some, like the surpassingly shameless Sarah Huckabee Sanders or her predecessor Sean Spicer, it's almost the entirety of the job. For others, like Kelly or Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it happens at a moment of political peril for Trump, when they're sent out to do damage control.
But in every case, the aide winds up looking worse for it. Watching them defend Trump only reminds us of how they sold a piece of their soul when they took the job, because to work for Trump is to acquiesce to all that he is. John Kelly might once have argued that he's there to restrain Trump from inflicting too much damage, but that's a claim he can no longer make. Like everyone else in this administration, he's been stained forever.