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.
And it doesn’t get much better from there.
Kelly admits he wasn’t consulted much before Trump banned travel from several majority-Muslim nations. At the time, Kelly was the secretary of homeland security — the department in charge of instituting the ban. Chaos ensued.
“I had very little opportunity to look at” the orders before they were issued, Kelly said. “Obviously, it brought down a greater deal of thunder on the president.”
Kelly suggested he and others also stopped Trump from withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. (A partial pullout from Afghanistan now appears likely, however, after a decision by the president this month, though senior U.S. military officers have said they have received no orders.)
“When I first took over, he was inclined to want to withdraw from Afghanistan,” Kelly said, adding: “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.”
Kelly defended those serving Trump as delivering him the right information, even if it might be disregarded. “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.”
This is pretty much the opposite of a ringing endorsement of Trump’s decisions; it’s a person who was involved in those decisions covering his backside and basically saying, “We tried to tell him!”
Kelly also distanced himself from the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border, blaming then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for a zero-tolerance border policy that resulted in the separations — a policy now marked by the death of two children who were in U.S. custody.
“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.”
It wasn’t clear whether Kelly meant that the policy itself was bad, or that it was just poorly and hastily implemented (which an inspector general has said it was). It’s worth noting that Kelly himself floated just such a policy in a 2017 interview with CNN. He also defended it as chief of staff, while emphasizing he hoped it would only be temporary.
And finally, Kelly again suggested Trump’s border wall demands were less-than-serious. “To be honest, it’s not a wall,” he said, noting the barriers were only part of the proposal. Previously, Kelly drew Trump’s ire by telling congressional Democrats that Trump had “evolved” on the wall and was not “fully informed” when he made it a campaign issue.
In total, Kelly is perhaps more diplomatic than the anonymous senior administration official. He was also more subtle than former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who a few weeks ago said Trump was “undisciplined, doesn’t like to read” and tried to do illegal things but was often thwarted by those around him.
But at the core of Kelly’s comments was the same thing: a top Trump administration official suggesting that the political novice in the White House makes decisions with his gut and without much regard for the information that the smart people around him try to give him. The idea that Kelly regards his biggest success as standing in Trump’s way is a pretty strong indictment of Trump as a person and of his presidency. It is also perhaps a warning of what’s to come as Trump is increasingly surrounded by yes-men and -women.
All of these are the comments of a man who knows his legacy will be tied to Trump — and who isn’t entirely comfortable with that. The Times asked him about exactly that in its ending:
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.”