New London — Retired four-star general John Kelly said that as President Donald Trump's chief of staff, he pushed back against the proposal to deploy U.S. troops to the southern border, arguing at the time that active-duty U.S. military personnel typically don't deploy or operate domestically.
"We don't like it," Kelly said in remarks at the Coast Guard Academy on Thursday night. "We see that as someone else's job meaning law enforcement."
U.S. military personnel are held in "very high regard" by the American public because "we serve the nation selflessly in an apolitical way," Kelly said. "The worst thing in my view is to start to put men and women in military uniform against U.S. citizens, whatever the issue is."
Kelly, who signed a memo authorizing active-duty military troops stationed along the southwest border to use lethal force, said he "bargained" for a proposal to use the troops to carry out logistical tasks, and that he expressed his view that "no, I don't think we want to put men and women in U.S. uniform with guns on the Rio Grande."
Kelly was asked about the decision during a nearly hourlong discussion with retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who was the head of the service from 2006 to 2010, as part of an annual leadership lecture series at the academy.
Throughout the speech, Kelly praised the cadets in the audience, who will go on to be officers in the Coast Guard, for being among a small group of Americans who've elected to serve in the military.
Kelly, who served in the Marines for more than 40 years, was first tapped by the Trump administration to serve as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the Coast Guard, before becoming chief of staff six months later.
"I mean I was just getting started but I really, thoroughly enjoyed it. Then I was drafted into the chief of staff job, which I didn't thoroughly enjoy," Kelly said to laughs.
As chief of staff, Kelly was tasked with pushing the Trump administration's immigration policies through Congress. He said he is still disappointed he was not able to reach a deal with congressional Democrats to provide a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants in exchange for heightened border security, and that he is still stunned Trump agreed to the terms, since "he's such a hardliner."
The two parties were "very close" to a deal, Kelly said, but Democrats walked away after a federal court ruled to block the Trump administration's phase-out of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, giving them a win.
"It's unconscionable that they walked away when we were that close," Kelly said, and later added that he found it "very interesting" that Congress "in an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote" in 2006 authorized 750 miles of wall to be built along the southern border. He said Barack Obama, Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, all members of the U.S. Senate at the time, voted in favor of the funding.
Kelly said a phyiscal barrier is needed in some places along the border "where there is an urban area on the Mexican side of the border and on the U.S. side of the border, because that's where the vast majority of the crossings take place," and Congress should appropriate money to pay for it. But he said he disagrees with the decision to shift money from the Pentagon to pay for the barrier.
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