Outgoing Chief of Staff John Kelly admitted the White House gave up on building a concrete border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border ‘early on’ in President Donald Trump’s administration but said some ‘fencing’ was necessary.
‘To be honest, it’s not a wall,’ he told the Los Angeles Times in a long interview defending his rocky tenure atop Trump’s White House.
‘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,’ he said.
Outgoing Chief of Staff John Kelly defended his tenure atop the White House in a two-hour long interview with the Los Angeles Times
Kelly talked about managing President Donald Trump and said Trump never told him to do anything illegal
Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general, originally joined Trump’s administration as Homeland Security Secretary, where he oversaw immigration policy and worked with border agents.
He said he heard from Customs and Border Protection agents that they needed a barrier at certain spots on the almost 2,000 mile border.
‘They said, ‘Well we need a physical barrier in certain places, we need technology across the board, and we need more people,’ Kelly noted in the interview.
The retired general spoke to the Los Angeles Times by phone for more than two hours on Friday as he prepares to leave the West Wing at the end of the year.
Kelly gave the interview to defend his tenure but the interview itself hints at chaos in the West Wing – a notion White House aides have tried to dispel but constantly bubbles up again when talking about the Trump White House.
In the interview, the outgoing chief of staff talked about how Trump relies on his gut when making decisions, admits he didn’t get time to review policies, notes his surprise at some pronouncement by Cabinet members, and recounts the 17-hour days he spent managing the president.
In July 2017, Trump named Kelly his chief of staff, replacing Reince Priebus, whose tenure at the White House was marked by constant chatter at how long he would last in the position.
The president wanted Kelly to bring his military lens to the job – imposing order on a West Wing that had been marked by high staff turnover, a lack in a reporting structure, and inter-agency rivalry.
His 18 months on the job had its tough moments: Trump appeared to defend white nationalists after a rally in Charlottesville, Va., to protest the removal of Civil War statutes; staff secretary Rob Porter was revealed by DailyMail.com to have been accused of domestic abuse by two ex-wives; and the firings of aides Omarose Manigault Newman and Anthony Scaramucci.
Kelly pushed back on the notion that the president doesn’t like to read briefing papers or spends most of his time watching cable news in what’s called ‘executive time’ – where Trump is not in the Oval Office but usually tweeting or talking on the phone.
‘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.’
John Kelly (right) is leaving the White House at the end of the year after 18 months as President Trump’s chief of staff
John Kelly replaced Reince Priebus (right), who tweeted a photo of them at a White House holiday reception this year
John Kelly said the administration gave up on a concrete border wall ‘early on’
A migrant jumps the border fence to get into the U.S. side to San Diego
He said he made sure the president had access to multiple streams of information before he made a decision but, he added, Trump often relies on his gut rather than U.S. intelligence.
He also told the newspaper that being chief of staff was a ‘bone-crushing hard job, but you do it.’
His typical day began at 4 a.m. and often didn’t end until 9 p.m.
‘I’m guarded by the Secret Service. I can’t even go get a beer,’ he joked.
But, he said, Trump never ordered him to do anything illegal, Kelly said, ‘because we wouldn’t have.’
‘If he had said to me, ‘Do it, or you’re fired,’ Kelly said he would have resigned.
Kelly told The Los Angeles Times he tried to leave politics out of his job.
‘I told the president the last thing in my view that you need in the chief of staff is someone that looks at every issue through a political lens,’ Kelly said.
And Kelly, who has a military background, kept himself out of politics in his interview with the Times.
Asked if there was a security crisis at the border or whether Trump ginned up fears of migrant ‘invasion’ for political reasons, Kelly didn’t directly answer.
‘We do have an immigration problem,’ was his response.
He also expressed compassion for those trying to come to the United States.
‘Illegal immigrants, overwhelmingly, are not bad people,’ Kelly said. ‘I have nothing but compassion for them, the young kids.’
Immigration and border security have been some of the most controversial issues in the two years of Trump’s presidency.
One policy in particular bounced back on hard on the White House: the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy that resulted in hundreds of migrant children being separated from their families.
Kelly put the blame on then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who announced the move in May.
He said Session’s pronouncement caught the White House by surprise.
‘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.’
John Kelly (center) in the Oval Office with deputy chief of staff Bill Shine (left) and adviser Jared Kushner (right)
John Kelly said his day began at 4 a.m. and often ended at 9 p.m
A man passes a Mexican migrant baby to her mother after they jump the border fence to get into the U.S. side to San Diego on Saturday
It was a bit of reversal for Kelly, who originally took the heat for the policy after an interview he gave CNN in March 2017 – when he led the Department of Homeland Security – revealed he suggested the separation policy could deter illegals.
‘Yes, I am considering in order to deter more movement along this terribly dangerous network,’ he told the network at the time.
He added: ‘I would do almost anything to deter the people from Central America to getting on this very, very dangerous network that brings them up through Mexico into the United States.’
But Kelly put the blame in Sessions’ corner although he admitted it was the administration’s fault for not anticipating public outrage to that policy and Trump’s travel ban.
Shortly after taking office, Trump issued an executive order barring travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.
‘I had very little opportunity to look at them,’ before the orders were announced, Kelly said. ‘Obviously, it brought down a greater deal of thunder on the president.’
Asked why he stayed 18 months on the job despite the constant reports of tension between him and the president, he said simply: duty.
‘Military people,’ he said, ‘don’t walk away.’