Update: Shortly after the LA Times published its article, the New York Times published a similar piece – recapping the LA Times story while adding:
Mr. Kelly is leaving after a 17-month tenure that he described to the paper as a “bone-crushing hard job.” Mr. Kelly was known to tell aides that he had the “worst job in the world,” and frequently told people that Mr. Trump was not up to role of president, according to two former administration officials. –NYT
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly will be leaving the Trump administration on Wednesday after 18 months on the job wrangling President Trump and keeping the West Wing in order.
In an exclusive two-hour interview with the LA Times, Kelly offers a peek behind the curtain as he presided over some of the Trump administration’s most controversial immigration and geopolitical policies.
“When I first took over, he was inclined to want to withdraw from Afghanistan,” Kelly recalled. “He was frustrated. It was a huge decision to make … and frankly there was no system at all for a lot of reasons — palace intrigue and the rest of it — when I got there.”
Trump, who campaigned on non-interventionism and reducing troop counts wherever possible, announced the pullout of all US troops from Syria, and half of the 14,000 troops in Afghanistan – after Kelly’s departure was confirmed December 8 – moves that Kelly opposed as Chief of Staff.
Kelly’s supporters, meanwhile, have suggested that he was the only thing stopping Trump from making several ill-advised choices, such as not pulling US forces out of South Korea, and not withdrawing from NATO as Trump has threatened.
That said, the outgoing Chief of Staff maintains that President Trump had access to multiple streams of detailed information before major decisions were made – despite Trump’s reputation for relying on his gut instinct.
“It’s never been: The president just wants to make a decision based on no knowledge and ignorance,” said Kelly. “You may not like his decision, but at least he was fully informed on the impact.”
Kelly tells the Times that it was a “bone-crushing hard job” to have spent nearly every waking minute of 15-hour days with the President, “but you do it,” he added.
On most days, he said, he woke up at 4 a.m. and typically came home at 9 p.m. Then he often went straight into a secure area for classified reports and communications so he could keep working.
“I’m guarded by the Secret Service. I can’t even go get a beer,” he quipped. –LA Times
Kelly also noted that while Trump pushed back on his advisors to test the limits of his authority under the law – often asking Kelly “Why can’t we do it this way?” – that Trump never ordered him to do anything illegal “because we wouldn’t have.”
“If he had said to me, ‘Do it, or you’re fired,” Kelly said, he would have resigned.
According to Kelly, Trump brought him in to bring structure and order to a chaotic White House racked with inter-agency rivalry, remarkably high staff turnover and nearly constant controversy – adding that he tried to remove politics from his decision-making.
“I told the president the last thing in my view that you need in the chief of staff is someone that looks at every issue through a political lens,” Kelly said.
Kelly served 46 years in the Marines, from the Vietnam War to the rise of Islamic State, making him the U.S. military’s longest-serving general when he retired in January 2016.
When Trump picked him to head Homeland Security, and then serve as White House chief of staff, officials from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill expressed hope that Kelly would be one of the “adults in the room” to manage a mercurial president.
To critics, Kelly failed at that task, unable to rein in Trump’s angry tweets or bring order to executive decision-making.
Worse, they argue, he aggressively advocated and implemented harsh immigration measures, including separating migrant children from their parents on the border last summer, that quickly ran aground or were reversed in the courts. –LA Times
Kelly brushed off reports that Trump was put off by Kelly’s iron grip on White House operations or the endless briefings, however his “anticlimactic exit,” as the Times puts it, “reflects a tenure dogged from the outset by the indignities of constant speculation, fueled by the president’s own public remarks, that he would be fired.”
Kelly said that the decision to leave was solidified after the November 6 midterm election, in which Republicans lost control of the House. Two days later, Trump announced Kelly’s departure.
“John Kelly will be leaving, I don’t know if I can say retiring,” Trump said from the South Lawn of the White House before departing for the annual Army-Navy football game. “But he’s a great guy.”
Unlike Kelly’s friend James N. Mattis, the retired Marine general who resigned as secretary of Defense with a public letter rebuking the president for abandoning allies and undermining alliances, Kelly kept his counsel.
But his impending departure from the eye of the storm created an embarrassing void at the White House as one candidate after another publicly pulled out or declined the chief of staff job. –LA Times
The departure of Kelly has many in Washington worried that nobody will be watching Trump – mostly among Democrats.
“Now, it just seems to be a free-for-all,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI). “There’s no real consistent figure that’s going to stand there and just make sure literally the trains run on time. I think that was one of Kelly’s major contributions.”
“It’s a loss, there’s no question,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).
Kelly leaves amid a stalemate over $5 billion in funding for Trump’s US-Mexico border wall, which has resulted in a government shutdown now entering week two. Trump has blamed Democrats, who have refused to provide more than $1.3 billion for border security.
“To be honest, it’s not a wall,” said Kelly – who embarked in early 2017 on seeking advice from those who “actually secure the border,” on what to do. Speaking with Customs and Border Protection agents – referred to by Kelly as “salt-of-the-earth, Joe-Six-Pack folks,” the outgoing Chief of Staff recounts “They said, ‘Well we need a physical barrier in certain places, we need technology across the board, and we need more people’.”
“The president still says ‘wall’ — oftentimes frankly he’ll say ‘barrier’ or ‘fencing,’ now he’s tended toward steel slats. But we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration, when we asked people what they needed and where they needed it.”
When pressed by the Times over whether there is a security crisis at the Southern border, or if Trump has simply stirred up fears of a migrant “invasion,” Kelly said “We do have an immigrant problem.”
From the 1980s to the mid-2000s, apprehensions at the border — the most common measure of illegal immigration — routinely reached more than 1 million migrants a year.
Today, they are near historical lows. In the fiscal year that ended in September, border authorities apprehended 521,090 people.
But immigration officials are seeing a dramatic rise in families and unaccompanied minors at the border, mostly from Central America.
Kelly saw the corruption and violence that spurred migrations from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, first as head of the Pentagon’s Southern Command, which stretches from South America to Mexico’s southern border, then at Homeland Security.
He says that experience has given him a nuanced view on immigration and border security — one that at times appears at odds with Trump’s harsh anti-immigration messaging and policy.
“Illegal immigrants, overwhelmingly, are not bad people,” Kelly said, describing many migrants as victims misled by traffickers. “I have nothing but compassion for them, the young kids.” –LA Times
Kelly laid blame on immigrants and lawmakers, and not the Trump administration, for the tense situation at the border in which thousands of Central Americans remain stranded at the southern US border waiting for asylum claims to be processed at a snail’s pace of less than 100 per day.
“One of the reasons why it’s so difficult to keep people from coming — obviously it’d be preferable for them to stay in their own homeland but it’s difficult to do sometimes, where they live — is a crazy, oftentimes conflicting series of loopholes in the law in the United States that makes it extremely hard to turn people around and send them home,” said Kelly. “If we don’t fix the laws, then they will keep coming,” he continued. “They have known, and they do know, that if they can get here, they can, generally speaking, stay.”
Kelly’s advice to stop illegal immigration”? “stop U.S. demand for drugs, and expand economic opportunity” in Central America, he said.
Kelly dinged the Trump administration for failing to appropriately predict the public outrage stemming from Steve Bannon’s “travel ban” in January 2017, as well as the “zero tolerance” immigration policy and resultant spike in family separations this year.
Shortly after taking office, Trump issued an executive order immediately suspending the entire U.S. refugee program for 120 days, indefinitely freezing the entry of refugees from Syria and barring travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Refugees already approved for resettlement, green card holders and others were turned away from flights, detained, and in some cases deported. Federal judges issued emergency stays, and several iterations of the travel ban have been challenged in court.
At the time, despite reports he’d been caught off-guard by the president’s order, Kelly gave a full-throated defense.
“I had very little opportunity to look at them,” before the orders were announced, Kelly acknowledged in the Times interview. “Obviously, it brought down a greater deal of thunder on the president.”
Blain Rethmeier, who helped shepherd Kelly and his replacement at Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, through their Senate confirmations, put it more colorfully: “He got handed a [crap] sandwich the first week on the job.” –LA Times
“There’s only so many things a chief of staff can do, particularly with a personality like Donald Trump,” said former Kelly colleague David Lapan of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
In May, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance immigration policy which resulted in the high-profile separation of migrant children from their parents – a practice conducted under the Obama Administration (which the ACLU even sued them over). Kelly said Sessions’ announcement surprised the White House.
“What happened was Jeff Sessions, he was the one that instituted the zero-tolerance process on the border that resulted in both people being detained and the family separation,” said Kelly. “He surprised us.”
The task of implementing the policy fell on the shoulders of Kelly’s replacement at the Department of Homeland Security, Kristjen Nielsen, who came under fire for claiming that there was no official policy of separating families.
“She is a good soldier; she took the face shot,” said an anonymous Senior White House official to the Times. “No one asked her to do it, but by the time we could put together a better strategy, she’d already owned it.”
When asked why he stuck it out for 18 months in the chaotic Trump White House, “despite policy differences, personality clashes, the punishing schedule and a likely lasting association with some of Trump’s controversies,” Kelly said it was a matter of duty.
“Military people,” said Kelly “don’t walk away.”