John Kelly Turns Heads With Surprise Exit Interview

The outgoing chief of staff has something to say
By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 30, 2018 12:02 PM CST
John Kelly: 'It's Not a Wall'
In this Nov. 16, 2018, file photo, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly watches as President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.   (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

"To be honest, it's not a wall." That's John Kelly in an LA Times exit interview about immigration policy, Afghanistan, the legality of President Trump's orders—and whether Kelly was allowed to "go get a beer" during his "bone-crushing hard job" as chief of staff. "The president still says 'wall'—oftentimes frankly he'll say 'barrier' or 'fencing,' now he's tended toward steel slats," per Kelly. "But we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration, when we asked people what they needed and where they needed it." Kelly says that jibes with what heard in early 2017 from "salt-of-the-earth, Joe-Six-Pack folks" who work as border agents: "They said, 'Well we need a physical barrier in certain places, we need technology across the board, and we need more people.'" For more:

  • Afghanistan: "When I first took over, he was inclined to want to withdraw from Afghanistan," Kelly recalls of Trump. "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."

  • Not "ignorance": "It's never been: The president just wants to make a decision based on no knowledge and ignorance," says Kelly, who assures the Times he gave Trump access to reams of information before major decisions. "You may not like his decision, but at least he was fully informed on the impact."
  • Not so bad: "Illegal immigrants, overwhelmingly, are not bad people," says Kelly, who still argues for stricter laws to keep the numbers down. "I have nothing but compassion for them, the young kids."
  • Sessions 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," per Kelly. "He surprised us."
  • No beer: Kelly describes 15-hour days that start at 4am and end at 9pm with him going over classified reports. "I'm guarded by the Secret Service. I can't even go get a beer."
  • Reaction: A tremor of delight has rippled through certain media outlets, with the Guardian saying the interview "contained a number of statements likely to irk Trump" and the Washington Post noting that "Kelly's words are not exactly a ringing endorsement of Trump's decisions."
With Kelly leaving, one of his top White House aides apparently planned to "hide out."
(Read more John Kelly stories.)

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