Article 2 of the Constitution, the article regarding the executive branch of the government, consists of a little over a thousand words, including such things as what the powers and responsibilities of the president are, and at the end of the very first section of this article is the oath to be taken by the president upon entering office — the only oath for which the exact wording was specified in the Constitution:
“Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:—‘I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.’”
But Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, not only doesn’t seem to be familiar enough with the Constitution to know that the president’s oath of office is in it, but has a pretty wild story about how that oath came into existence.
On May 17, Kelly (at that time the Homeland Security Secretary in Trump’s ever-changing administration) delivered some brief remarks at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s commencement.
The bulk of Kelly’s remarks, delivered as he was introducing the next speaker — our country’s esteemed commander in chief — were about the importance of the oath that the graduating cadets would be taking as they were commissioned as Coast Guard officers, emphasizing that the oath they would be taking was to “a piece of paper, called the U.S. Constitution.” (You know, that piece of paper that contains the president’s oath.)
But Kelly, apparently oblivious to what is actually contained in that “piece of paper,” then continued:
“So where did the oath come from? As the story goes it’s generally accurate as I understand it. They were about to inaugurate our very first president, who’d never done that before, George Washington, in our first capital, New York City. They were just about to go out and do it, and someone said, don’t we need an oath? Because up until then they had been Englishmen and Englishmen and Englishwomen and had always taken their oath to the sovereign. So they sat down and wrote up the oath that you generally are about to take and handed it to George Washington before he became President. The only thing he added to that oath was so help me God.”
Really? As George Washington was about to step out on the balcony to be inaugurated somebody suddenly thought, “Oh shit, we need to have some kind of oath for him to take?” But this is the ridiculous story that the new White House chief of staff actually believes is “generally accurate” — a story that would be hard to believe even if the president’s oath weren’t right there in the freakin’ Constitution. But it is in the Constitution, a “piece of paper” that you would hope that someone who has risen to as influential a position as John Kelly has would be intimately familiar with.
When Ray Soller, who deserves the credit for catching Kelly’s historically absurd oath story, emailed a number of people, including myself, about this back in May, I was appalled by it for two reasons — not only because I’m someone who has been fighting the Christian nationalists’ revisionism of American history for over a dozen years, but also because I work for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) and have been watching with horror as the same historical revisionism that for years has been steadily making its way into our public schools, the halls of Congress, and even Supreme Court opinions, has also been creeping into our military, with the most well-known Christian nationalist historical revisionist, David Barton, speaking at our military bases and his books and videos being found in military base libraries — including the libraries at several of the military service academies and the military’s other colleges.
Not only did Kelly tell his completely insane story (which of course also included the long-ago-debunked myth that George Washington added the words “so help me God” to his oath) at the commencement at one of our military service academies, but his not knowing that the president’s oath is in the Constitution went completely unnoticed by every news organization that covered this commencement. The only attention at all that was given to John Kelly’s incredible display of constitutional ignorance came from a few bloggers who, thanks to Ray Soller’s alerting them to it, posted about it on their blogs.
As already mentioned, Kelly’s preposterous oath story was part of his remarks introducing Donald Trump, who then took the stage and gave a nearly half hour long commencement address, during which he not surprisingly, and completely inappropriately for the occasion, bitched that no politician in history has ever been treated more unfairly by the media than he has, and boasted in his typical campaign-style manner about his many phenomenal accomplishments so far as president. And then, in keeping with the sudden facade of religiosity that he has adopted since becoming president and surrounding himself with a coterie of theocrats, he told these soon-to-be commissioned officers that they are “doing God’s work.”
No, Mr. Trump, our nation’s Coast Guard officers are not “doing God’s work.” They are bravely defending that “piece of paper” called the Constitution that your new White House chief of staff has apparently never read.