1. Nation & World

John Kelly pins Civil War on 'lack of ability to compromise'

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks during the daily briefing at the White House, in Washington, on Oct. 19, 2017. [Tom Brenner | New York Times]
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks during the daily briefing at the White House, in Washington, on Oct. 19, 2017. [Tom Brenner | New York Times]
Published Oct. 31, 2017

If, by appearing on Laura Ingraham's show on Monday night, John F. Kelly was trying to do damage control after the indictments of three of President Donald Trump's associates earlier in the day, it did not work.

Instead, Kelly, the White House chief of staff, resurrected the debate over Confederate monuments — previously fueled by his boss, Trump, over the summer — and the Confederacy itself. He called Robert E. Lee "an honorable man who gave up his country to fight for his state," said that "men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand," and argued that "the lack of ability to compromise caused the Civil War."

Christina Wilkie, a reporter for CNBC, used Twitter to live-blog Monday's interview, on the Fox News program "The Ingraham Angle." Ms. Wilkie's tweet quoting Kelly's "lack of ability to compromise" statement spread quickly: "Wow. Gen. John Kelly just said 'the lack of ability to compromise led to the Civil War.' Compromise on what, exactly?"

RELATED COVERAGE: John Kelly says he will never apologize to Frederica Wilson

The reaction was swift and unforgiving, with many commenters ridiculing Kelly for suggesting that slavery was an issue on which a compromise could or should have been reached.

"Nope. No. We're not doing this," tweeted Jason Kander. "Slavery. Slavery was what they wouldn't compromise over. SLAVERY."

Within less than two hours, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter Bernice King had weighed in on Kelly's description of Robert E. Lee as "honorable." "It's irresponsible & dangerous, especially when white supremacists feel emboldened, to make fighting to maintain slavery sound courageous," she tweeted.

Other people referred disapprovingly to Kelly's reputation as a voice of reason and discipline within the Trump administration: the "adult in the room"; the person keeping, or at least trying to keep, Trump under control.

And many pointed out that, in fact, many attempts were made to avert the Civil War through compromise ? that is, by agreeing to allow slavery in some places.

The Missouri Compromise, in 1820, admitted Missouri to the union as a slave state; in exchange, it admitted Maine as a free state and barred slavery in most parts of the Louisiana Purchase territory north of a specified latitude.

The Compromise of 1850 eliminated the slave trade from Washington, D.C., but also required citizens of free states to aid in the capture of fugitive slaves. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which replaced the Missouri Compromise in 1854, let citizens of Kansas and Nebraska decide whether to allow slavery.

And, of course, there was the compromise that aided the very passage of the Constitution: the Three-Fifths Compromise, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of congressional districting.

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"If John Kelly isn't a complete idiot," John Hudak, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a public policy research organization, tweeted late Monday, "he's at least 3/5ths of the way there."