General John Kelly ran the Department of Homeland Security during the first 6 months of President Trump’s administration. He did so well that the President soon called on him to replace Reince Priebus as his Chief of Staff, a position that Kelly has held ever since.
While the ride has been rough and the stress almost constant, General Kelly says that he doesn’t regret a single second of his time in the White House. In fact, if General Kelly had one regret, it’s that he didn’t join the White House team sooner.
Kelly recently sat down with NPR’s John Burnett to talk about his role in the administration, the ongoing negotiations with North Korea, and what, if anything, can be done about the continuing problem of illegal immigration?
It was a very interesting discussion that held several very revealing moments and gave some important insight into life in the Trump White House.
John Burnett: Do you have any regrets about taking this job nine months ago?
John Kelly: I, first of all, didn’t get a vote. I took a $30,000-a-year cut to take this job from what I was doing at DHS. And I say that only because I’m one of the – probably the few people around here that isn’t really rich, at my age, anyway. You know, the sense of duty. It was clear from my perch at DHS that the White House was less organized than our president deserved. So when he said I really need you to come down, what do you say? I came down.
John Burnett: Have you seriously considered leaving?
John Kelly: No. There’s times of great frustration, mostly because of the stories I read about myself or others that I think the world of and wonder if it’s worth it to be subjected to that. But then I grow up and suck it up.
John Burnett: Kelly actually told me this job is the hardest thing he’s ever done in his life. But he said he thinks the president is, quote, “a super smart guy, quick study on trade, taxes and business.” I asked him if there was anything he would have done differently in that job.
John Kelly: In retrospect, I wish I had been here from day one.
John Burnett: How so?
John Kelly: Well, because in terms of staffing or serving the president, that first six months was pretty chaotic. There were people hired that maybe shouldn’t have been hired. It’s not that things were a disaster that first six months, but I believe they could have been better.
John Burnett: So Kelly says he spends an enormous amount of time with Donald Trump. He says five to eight hours a day, more time with the president than anyone outside of Trump’s own family. I asked Kelly what he does the rest of his day. He says he starts at 5:30 in the morning reading the news on the ride from his home in Manassas, Va., to the White House. He ends it 15 hours later, usually with a glass of what he calls cheap red wine.
John Burnett: The president keeps calling the Russian investigation a witch hunt. Do you think it’s a witch hunt against the president?
John Kelly: From what I read in the newspaper, something that has gone on this long without any real meat on the bone, it suggests to me that there is nothing there relative to our president.
John Burnett: Is there a cloud because of it hanging over this White House?
John Kelly: Well, yeah. You know, it’s – there may not be a cloud, but certainly the president is somewhat embarrassed, frankly. When world leaders come in – you know, Bibi Netanyahu was here, who’s under investigation himself – and it’s like you walk in and, you know, the first couple of minutes of every conversation might revolve around that kind of thing.
John Burnett: How can you be sure that he’s not going to trick you, that you’ve been down this road so many times before and there have been disappointments with that country?
John Kelly: Not sure. But this president’s got his eyes wide open. Believe me, the president really wants this to work. We talk fairly frequently about nuclear weapons, and he’s just astounded that the United States, that the human race could have gotten itself into this dilemma with all of these nuclear weapons. And, you know, as he says, to help North Korea give up its nuclear program and its missile program would be a wonderful thing.
On illegal immigration:
John Kelly: Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people. They’re not criminals. They’re not MS-13. But they’re also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States. They’re overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth, fifth, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They’re coming here for a reason, and I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws…
Dealing with illegals who have temporary protected status (or TPS):
John Kelly: I think we should fold all of the TPS people that have been here for a considerable period of time and find a way for them to be – a path to citizenship.
John Burnett: A path to citizenship, rather than sent home?
John Kelly: Well, they were in a legal status under TPS. You take the Central Americans, they’ve all been here 20-plus years. I mean, if you really start looking at, you know, you’ve been here 20 years, what have you done with your life? Well, I’ve married an American guy, and I have three children. And I’ve worked. And I’ve gotten a degree. Or I’m a brick mason or something like that. That’s what I think we should do.