Former White House chief of staff John Kelly spoke freely for the first time Wednesday evening about his tenure in President Donald Trump’s administration and broke with the president on immigration and other core issues.
In an onstage interview at Duke University, the retired four-star general said he viewed his nearly two-year stint in the Trump administration — first as Homeland Security secretary and then as Trump’s chief of staff — as his civic duty to the country. He also said he likely would have made the same choice had a President Hillary Clinton offered him the job, according to several media outlets.
hough he had once reportedly called his service for Trump “the least enjoyable job” he’d ever had, Kelly insisted that it was the most important one he’d held.
While Kelly said Wednesday he couldn’t answer questions about whether the president ordered him to grant Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a security clearance over the objections of intelligence officials, citing executive privilege, he notably diverged from Trump on his marquee campaign issue: immigration.
Kelly rebuked one of the president’s constant refrains about undocumented immigrants: That migrants who cross into the U.S. illegally are dangerous criminals and pose a serious threat.
“They’re overwhelmingly not criminals,” Kelly said Wednesday. “They’re people coming up here for economic purposes. I don’t blame them for that.”
He also reiterated his position that a border wall spanning the entire U.S.-Mexico border would be a “waste of money,” despite overseeing the beginning of what would become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history over Trump’s demand that Congress fund the wall.
Though there are areas where a border wall would be effective, Kelly said, “We don’t need a wall from sea to shining sea.” The president himself has shifted on the specifics of his border wall, including its proposed length.
The retired general also defended NATO, which Trump has repeatedly maligned as having a cost to the U.S. that outweighs its benefits.
But while Kelly addressed some of the most controversial aspects of his time in the White House, he drew laughter from the audience when he joked about the advice he said he gave his temporary replacement, Mick Mulvaney.
Before saying the chief of staff’s job is to tell the president “what he needs to hear,” Kelly said he advised Mulvaney to “run for it.”