WASHINGTON — John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff, doesn’t often talk about what he considers.
Even people who have worked with all the retired Marine general for many years — people who enjoy and respect him — say they understand little about his politics. What they do understand is that Kelly follows orders, which he has demonstrated a particular zeal for defending and aggressively performing some of President Donald Trump‘s most intense policies.
Ultimately, these people say, Kelly’s private beliefs do not matter. In his new job, Kelly may succeed in stabilizing and professionalizing Trump’s team. But there’s no reason to believe he will alter the president’s perspectives.
If anyone can bring order to Trump’s White House, it is Kelly, according to some former Democratic Capitol Hill staffer who worked together and enjoys him. But the “positive qualities that I’ve seen in him and experienced in him also sort of make me fearful,” the ex-staffer said. “I’m concerned … he could only come to be a ‘yes man’ and make this well-oiled machine that works effectively — or as effectively as possible — around Trump’s incompetence and erraticness.”
Kelly understands his role and that it is not to tell the commander-in-chief things to do, said Evelyn Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia from the Barack Obama government.
“Kelly’s a very solid, level-headed, mature specialist, so temperamentally he is very much, by what I could tell, the contrary of this president,” Farkas said. “He feels his policy views aren’t the problem, it is not about what he thinks the coverage ought to be. He does really see himself as the executor.”
Kelly, who grew up in a working-class Roman Catholic household in Boston, spent more than four decades years climbing through the Marine Corps ranks before retiring annually as a four-star overall. He finished multiple tours in Iraq and developed close ties on Capitol Hill if he was the Marines’ congressional liaison. In his final years in the military, he led U.S. Southern Command, overseeing operations in Latin America and Guantanamo Bay.
Like many military brass, the 67-year-old Kelly has kept his policy preferences to himself. With a reputation as a smart and thoughtful leader, he has the rare distinction of attracting praise from either side of the political aisle. Some who’ve worked closely with him sense that he has hawkish foreign policy views and leans conservative, but say he was constantly aware to represent the positions of his superiors.
Trump’s critics were originally relieved while the president tapped Kelly last year to go to the Department of Homeland Security. When he retired, Kelly’d cautioned other generals to stay away from the “cesspool of domestic politics,” but said he would be willing to work for either Trump or the Republican’s foe from the presidential race, Hillary Clinton.
At Kelly’s six-month tenure at DHS, he showed little willingness to publicly buck the president’s anti-immigration agenda. He’s acknowledged the shoddy rollout of Trump’s initial ban on visitors and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries (also was reportedly frustrated in being left from early preparation procedures). However he ardently defends its legality and states it will make the U.S. safer.
Under his leadership, immigration enforcement representatives expanded the reach of deportation attempts to find out more non-criminals and individuals who have lived in the U.S. for several years. And he has helped push for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, even though it might not operate the entirety of this boundary.
Kelly has often deflected criticism of Trump’s policies by insisting DHS is only following the law and asserting Congress should enact legislation if members do not like what the department is doing. That’s frustrating for his critics, who point out that he had discretion over who to aim for deportations.
“He does a number of things: he washes his hands, he feels sorry and helpless, but there’s nothing he could do, ” he blames the courts,” said Rep. Luis Gutirrez (D-Ill.) . “It is like he doesn’t assume responsibility, possibly because he doesn’t understand or doesn’t want to. And both of these, I think, have to have the folks in the White House like [strategist Steve] Bannon delirious with joy.”
During his time in Southern Command, Kelly never signaled hostility toward migrants or that he feared the U.S. population becoming less white, ” said Adam Isacson, a senior partner at the Washington Office on Latin America company who met with him in the time. But it is going to soon become evident “how comfy he is with individuals who clearly hold” anti-migrant, anti-Muslim perspectives, Isacson added.
“When he has talked about carrying out the president’s policies for their intense — having [Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents] go right ahead and round up everyone, for example — he has always throw it as, ‘These are my orders, this is exactly what the legislation says, we’re going to apply the law for its intense,”’ Isacson said.
A number of Kelly’s former associates have been surprised by his service for hardline immigration policies. In March, Kelly told CNN he had been considering separating children from their parents in the border in a bid to dissuade individuals from creating the often dangerous journey to the U.S. His remarks surprised Mieke Eoyang, who worked with Kelly for several years when she had been a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill. “It was darker than I thought [he] would be,” she explained.
Kelly later met with Senate Democrats and promised them DHS would not separate kids from their parents unless there was an extenuating reason to do so, like an illness. However he declined a request from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) To promise in writing that it was not DHS coverage to separate kids from their own parents.
Kelly has also demonstrated some ignorance of legislative attempts on immigration — he recently told members of Congress that he was not aware of invoices to assist undocumented immigrants that arrived to the U.S. as kids. That lack of knowledge makes him more vulnerable to doing whatever is requested of him, Gutierrez said.
“While you’re zoning out on your commute home, Homeland Security researchers are closing in on a harmful kid predator.” John Kelly, in an April speech
It is impossible to understand to what extent, if any, Kelly was a moderating force behind the scenes. Democratic House members said he advised them he helped rescue the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protects some undocumented young people who arrived to the U.S. as kids. However he has not publicly defended it as great coverage.
The White House declined to make Kelly accessible for comment on his views and the way they align or differ from Trump’s.
The problem for Kelly is “we’ll never understand just how much deeper ‘the mad’ could have been that he turned off, we’ll just see what actually makes it out and that might still be awful,” explained Eoyang, vice president to the national security program in Third Way, a Washington-based centrist think tank.
Although Kelly’s former colleagues say they have not heard him denigrate foreigners or Muslims, some worry that he exaggerates foreign threats in ways that could unnecessarily frighten folks and be used to legitimize Trump’s anti-immigration agenda.
While head of Southern Command, Kelly sometimes overstated the danger of the drug trade and the presence of the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah in Central and South America, said the ex-Democratic staffer who requested anonymity to chat about him. At the time, the staffer supposed Kelly was trying to persuade lawmakers to give his command more money — but that kind of rhetoric continued after the overall turned into a more public figure. On immigration, Kelly often warns of the risks posed by criminal undocumented immigrants and the danger of the Salvadoran MS-13 gang. In his framing, the situation is dire.
“While you’re zoning out on your commute home, Homeland Security researchers are closing in on a harmful kid predator,” he said in an April speech. “While you’re binge-watching “Mad Men” on Netflix, [the Transportation Security Administration] is quitting an actual angry man with a gun that is loaded from boarding a trip to Disney World.”
Kelly “talks in terms that are a lot more threat-based and more serious about the danger in ways that I think to the public often come off as scary,” explained Eoyang. “He is not always doing the reassurance role that I think folks would need the secretary of Homeland Security to be discussing.”
Even those with concerns about Kelly’s functionality at DHS say that they are willing to believe he is wading deeper into the Trump government from a sense of responsibility to state. “There are individuals when faced with a dangerous situation would say, ‘Not me, I’m gonna keep myself safe and keep away from it.’ And you can find other people who see dangerous situation and think ‘I haveta go do something about it. It is my obligation to do something about it,”’ Eoyang explained. “Kelly is somebody who’d run toward danger.”