WASHINGTON – In August 2017, shortly after John F. Kelly became White House chief of staff, he convened crucial meetings on Afghanistan at President Trump's golf club in Bedminster, N.J.
Top officials from the Pentagon and the CIA, the director of national intelligence, diplomats and lawmakers huddled with Trump as Kelly and others urged him not to give up in Afghanistan.
“When I first took over, he was inclined to want to withdraw from Afghanistan,” Kelly recounted during an exclusive two-hour interview with the Los Angeles Times.
“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.”
The retired four-star Marine general will leave the administration on Wednesday. First as Homeland Security chief and then in 18 months at the White House, he presided over some of the Trump administration's most controversial immigration and security policies.
In the phone interview Friday, Kelly defended his rocky tenure, arguing that it is best measured by what the president did not do when Kelly was at his side.
It was only after Kelly's departure was confirmed Dec. 8, for example, that Trump abruptly announced the pullout of all U.S. troops from Syria and half the 14,000 troops from Afghanistan, two moves that Kelly had opposed.
Kelly's supporters say he stepped in to block or divert the president on dozens of matters large and small. They credit him, in part, for persuading Trump not to pull U.S. forces out of South Korea, or withdraw from NATO, as he had threatened. Kelly said he made sure that Trump had access to multiple streams of detailed information before he made a decision — even if the president says he often relies on his gut, rather than U.S. intelligence.
“It's never been: The president just wants to make a decision based on no knowledge and ignorance,” Kelly said. “You may not like his decision, but at least he was fully informed on the impact.”
Kelly allowed that spending nearly every waking minute of 15-hour days with a president seemingly inundated with one crisis after another has been a “bone-crushing hard job, but you do it.”
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.
Trump sometimes pressed his advisers on the limits of his authority under the law, often asking Kelly, “'Why can't we do it this way?'”
But Trump never ordered him to do anything illegal, Kelly stressed, “because we wouldn't have.”
“If he had said to me, 'Do it, or you're fired,'” Kelly said he would have resigned.
Trump enlisted him to bring order to a White House racked by inter-agency rivalry, high staff turnover and constant controversy, Kelly said. Although he sometimes clashed with other aides, he said, he tried to leave politics out of it.
“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.
Kelly rejects reports that Trump bristled at the endless briefings and Kelly's tight-fisted control of access to the Oval Office.
But his anticlimactic exit 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 he decided it was time to leave after the Nov. 6 midterm election, which saw heavy Republican losses in Congress and statehouses. The president announced Kelly's decision Dec. 8.
“John Kelly will be leaving, I don't know if I can say retiring,” Trump said from the South Lawn as he left 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.
On Dec. 14, Trump named Mick Mulvaney, his budget director, as acting chief of staff. Even administration critics see Kelly's departure as worrisome, saying he brought hard-edged national security experience and the integrity and ability to stand up to the president.
“It's a loss, there's no question,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif).
“Now, it just seems to be a free-for-all,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I). “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.”
Kelly leaves as Trump has been cocooned in the White House as a partial government shutdown moves into a second week over his demands for $5 billion for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The president has responded by firing off angry tweets at Democrats, who refuse to provide more than $1.3 billion for border security, rather than seeking to negotiate a solution.
The stalemate also highlights the distance, at least in language, between Kelly and Trump over the president's signature promise — to build a wall.
“To be honest, it's not a wall,” Kelly said.
When Kelly led Homeland Security in early 2017, one of his first steps was to seek advice from those who “actually secure the border,” Customs and Border Protection agents who Kelly calls “salt-of-the-earth, Joe-Six-Pack folks.”
“They said, 'Well we need a physical barrier in certain places, we need technology across the board, and we need more people,'” he said.
“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.”
Asked if there is a security crisis at the Southern border, or whether Trump has drummed up fears of a migrant “invasion” for political reasons, Kelly did not answer directly, but said, “We do have an immigration 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.”
But he blamed immigrants and lawmakers, not the White House, for the tense situation at the border, where thousands of Central Americans are stranded in Mexico — and two Guatemalan children have died in Border Patrol custody in Texas and New Mexico this month.
“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,” Kelly said.
“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.”
On Saturday, Trump blamed Democrats for the deaths of the two migrant children this month. He also threatened to cut off U.S. aid to Central America if another reported migrant caravan isn't stopped.
Kelly didn't respond to Trump's threats directly but suggested part of the problem lies on the U.S. side of the border.
“If you want to stop illegal immigration, stop U.S. demand for drugs, and expand economic opportunity” in Central America, he said.
Kelly faulted the administration for failing to follow procedure and failing to anticipate the public outrage for the two most controversial initiatives of his tenure: Trump's travel ban in January 2017, and the “zero tolerance” immigration policy and 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 sandwich the first week on the job.”
“There's only so many things a chief of staff can do, particularly with a personality like Donald Trump,” said David Lapan of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who worked with Kelly at Defense and Homeland Security.
In May, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced a zero-tolerance policy for immigration violations. U.S. officials already had begun to put the policy into practice, resulting in hundreds of migrant children being separated from their parents.
Kelly said Sessions' announcement caught the White House by surprise.
“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,” Kelly said. “He surprised us.”
The chaotic implementation then fell primarily on the Department of Health and Human Services and Nielsen, who came under fire for standing on the White House podium and saying there was no policy of separating families.
“She is a good soldier; she took the face shot,” a senior White House official said on background. “No one asked her to do it, but by the time we could put together a better strategy, she'd already owned it.”
Kelly surprised some of his friends when he backed Trump after a deadly clash between neo-Nazis and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017.
When Trump blamed “both sides” for the violence, Kelly seemed to hang his head in disapproval. But later he defended Confederate memorials and suggested the Civil War was not caused by slavery but inability to compromise.
In early 2018, Kelly conceded he'd mishandled the removal of Rob Porter, then-White House staff secretary, after reports emerged that two ex-wives had accused Porter of abuse.
But an episode in October 2017 may have been most telling for Kelly's struggles as a public face of the administration.
After a deadly ambush against U.S. troops in Niger, Kelly gave a rare White House news briefing to defend the president. He attacked a Florida congresswoman who was friends with the family of one of the soldiers who'd been killed, and despite video evidence contradicting his claims, did not apologize.
Kelly's eldest son Robert, also a Marine, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. He said that before his son's death, as a Marine commander, he would go to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center or too many funerals and try to imagine what the parents were going through.
“I couldn't have imagined that loss,” he said. “There is no burden a family bears that is heavier than to have lost a child, and with that child serving.”
Asked why he stayed 18 months in the White House, despite policy differences, personality clashes, the punishing schedule, and a likely lasting association with some of Trump's controversies, he said simply: duty.
“Military people,” he said, “don't walk away.”
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