White House Chief of Staff John Kelly may be leaving the Trump administration for good on Wednesday, but he’s already begun his apologia tour, granting an interview to The Los Angeles Times that was published this morning.
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Given the administration’s record during his tenure, Kelly took the easiest path to defending his work as the proverbial “adult in the room” in the Oval Office: trying to get people to imagine how much worse it could have been if he had not been there.
The exiting Chief of Staff noted that it wasn’t until after he had announced that he was joining the long list of former White House staffers that Trump decided to unilaterally withdraw US troops from Syria and halve the number of forces in Afghanistan.
“When I first took over, he was inclined to want to withdraw from Afghanistan,” Kelly told The Los Angeles Times during a phone interview.
“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’s supporters in the White House say that his intervention prevented many of Trump’s worst instincts from becoming U.S. policy, including the president’s threats to withdraw forces from South Korea and to dismantle the NATO alliance. The departing former general, however, says that he merely made certain that Trump had “multiple streams of detailed information before he made a decision.”
“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.”
While that explanation seems more like an indictment of the president’s lack of adequate intellectual capacity to make intelligent decisions based on the information made available to him, Kelly’s attitude of “Don’t blame me! I gave him the background info he needed!” undermines his claims of being the bastion of damage control in a White House headed by a spoiled and undisciplined toddler.
Perhaps the biggest scoop emerging from the interview is Kelly’s revelation that the definition of Trump’s signature campaign promise, the Mexican-funded border wall, has radically changed conceptually, if not semantically.
“To be honest, it’s not a wall,” Kelly, who led the Department of Homeland Security at the start of the administration, said.
He claims to have consulted with the Customs and Border Protection agents who “actually secure the border” to determine what they really needed to do their jobs.
“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.”
Whether the border barrier is imagined as being constructed from concrete, steel, or rolls of paper towels left over from hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico, the fact remains that without Trump’s Deus ex machina solution to immigration control, the number of illegal immigrants apprehended at the border has fallen by nearly half over the last decade.
Considered an immigration hardliner, Kelly attempted to separate his views on the inherent morality of the people crossing the border without proper documentation from those of the president.
“Illegal immigrants, overwhelmingly, are not bad people,” Kelly said, allowing that many migrants are victims misled by traffickers. “I have nothing but compassion for them, the young kids.”
Still, he blamed lax legislation in the US for the continued influx of refugees.
“If we don’t fix the laws, then they will keep coming,” Kelly stated. “They have known, and they do know, that if they can get here, they can, generally speaking, stay.”
He offered an alternative solution to Trump’s wall that would address the root causes of the ills that the president attributes to the foreign-born subjects of his demonization.
“If you want to stop illegal immigration, stop U.S. demand for drugs, and expand economic opportunity” in Central America, he said.
While Kelly described the administration’s failure to properly utilize existing procedures and understand the vehemence with which the public would reject his proposed travel bans and the family separation policy that was part of the “zero tolerance” immigration plans, he oddly blamed the debacle surrounding the issues on former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rather than on Trump himself.
“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.”
Kelly may be preparing for his post-White House career by spinning his involvement in the Trump administration’s most despicable actions to his own benefit, but he now claims that his motivation for staying in the administration as long as he did was a product of his military background.
“Military people,” he said, “don’t walk away.”
Perhaps Kelly should have considered his duty to serve the American people and our Constitution more highly than he did his duty to protect an unhinged and felonius president. His post-mortem on his tenure as Chief of Staff would be much less painful if he had.
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Original reporting by Molly O’Toole at The Los Angeles Time