White House Chief of Staff Is a Longtime Defender of the Accused
Posted February 9, 2018 11:39 p.m. EST
In 2013, John F. Kelly, a general at the time, defended a junior Marine officer who was accused of poor leadership after going on patrol in Afghanistan with team members who urinated on the bodies of three dead Taliban militants. Two years later, in 2015, he stood up for a Marine colonel facing a litany of charges, including sexual harassment.
Now the White House chief of staff, Kelly has come to the defense of a subordinate, engulfing him in a Trump administration crisis that could lead to his own undoing.
When accusations surfaced this week that Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary, had physically abused his two former wives, Kelly described the aide as “a friend, a confidant and a trusted professional.” He later said that he was “shocked” by the allegations — which spurred the release of a photograph of one of Porter’s former wives with a black eye — and said, “there is no place for domestic violence in our society.”
Porter resigned Wednesday.
Kelly did not personally know the Marine he defended in the 2013 investigation that focused on the 2011 desecration of the Taliban bodies. In an interview Friday, James V. Clement, who was the captain facing charges, said Kelly must have seen something in his case that spurred him to step up.
“He didn’t care that I was accused of something. He cared about speaking about the facts he was aware of,” said Clement, who later left the Marines.
During the 2013 administrative hearing, Kelly blamed Clement’s commanders for the patrol; Clement himself was not aware that troops had urinated on the bodies or of a video that showed the scene and was posted on the internet months later.
Clement was cleared of wrongdoing in the investigation. His lawyer in the case, John Dowd, is now President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and has been friends with Kelly for years.
In June 2015, Kelly spoke up again, this time to prevent Todd Shane Tomko, then a colonel, from being discharged from the Marine Corps. Tomko faced a litany of charges, including misconduct and sexual harassment.
In an administrative hearing before Tomko’s eventual court-martial, Kelly served as a character witness, joining the proceedings through a telephone call. During the call, the transcript of which was obtained by The New York Times, Kelly described Tomko as a “superb Marine officer.”
Tomko had never served under the general, and Kelly said he had little knowledge of why the colonel was removed from command at the Marines’ wounded warrior regiment. In 2016, during Tomko’s court-martial, Kelly again called into the proceedings to defend the colonel.
“I don’t know exactly what the issues are, but I certainly have never seen him berate, demean or insult anyone whether it’s been race, ethnic background, gender,” Kelly during his 2016 testimony. He recommended that Tomko remain “in the Marine Corps at his current rank.”
Tomko eventually pleaded guilty to a series of lesser charges, including conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. He was sentenced to two months of jail time and paid a $10,000 fine.
In November, Tomko was arrested in Illinois on outstanding warrants in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was charged with seven child abuse felonies, according to his hometown newspaper, The Quincy Herald-Whig, which first reported Tomko’s arrest. The charges included sexual battery and cruelty to children.