If, by appearing on Laura Ingraham’s show on Monday night, John F. Kelly was trying to do damage control after the indictments of Trump associates earlier in the day, it did not work.
Instead, Mr. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, resurrected the debate over Confederate monuments — previously fueled by his boss, President 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 an ability to compromise led to 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.” Her tweet quoting Mr. Kelly’s “lack of an ability to compromise” statement spread quickly.
The reaction was swift and unforgiving, with many commenters ridiculing Mr. Kelly for suggesting that slavery was an issue on which a compromise could or should have been reached.
Within less than two hours, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter Bernice King had weighed in on Mr. Kelly’s description of Robert E. Lee as “honorable,” criticizing him for making “fighting to maintain slavery sound courageous.”
Other people referred disapprovingly to Mr. 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, Mr. 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.
“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.”
Correction: October 31, 2017
An earlier version of this article misstated how many Trump associates were indicted on Monday. It was two, not three; the third associate had pleaded guilty weeks before.