WASHINGTON — In August 2017, shortly after John F. Kelly became White House chief of staff, he convened crucial meetings on Afghanistan at President Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J.
Top officials from the Pentagon and the CIA, the director of national intelligence, diplomats and lawmakers huddled with Trump as Kelly and others urged him not to give up in Afghanistan.
“When I first took over, he was inclined to want to withdraw from Afghanistan,” Kelly recounted during an exclusive two-hour interview with the Los Angeles Times.
“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.”
The retired four-star Marine general will leave the administration on Wednesday. First as Homeland Security chief and then in 18 months at the White House, he presided over some of the Trump administration’s most controversial immigration and security policies.
In the phone interview Friday, Kelly defended his rocky tenure, arguing that it is best measured by what the President did not do when Kelly was at his side.
It was only after Kelly’s departure was confirmed Dec. 8, for example, that Trump abruptly announced the pullout of all U.S. troops from Syria and half the 14,000 troops from Afghanistan, two moves that Kelly had opposed.
Kelly’s supporters say he stepped in to block or divert the President on dozens of matters large and small. They credit him, in part, for persuading Trump not to pull U.S. forces out of South Korea, or withdraw from NATO, as he had threatened.
Kelly said he made sure that Trump had access to multiple streams of detailed information before he made a decision — even if the President says he often relies on his gut, rather than U.S. intelligence.
“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.”
Kelly allowed that spending nearly every waking minute of 15-hour days with a President seemingly inundated with one crisis after another has been a “bone-crushing hard job, but you do it.”
On most days, he said, he woke up at 4 a.m. and typically came home at 9 p.m. Then he often went straight into a secure area for classified reports and communications so he could keep working.
“I’m guarded by the Secret Service. I can’t even go get a beer,” he quipped.
Trump sometimes pressed his advisers on the limits of his authority under the law, often asking Kelly, “‘Why can’t we do it this way?’”
But Trump never ordered him to do anything illegal, Kelly stressed, “because we wouldn’t have.”
“If he had said to me, ‘Do it, or you’re fired,’” Kelly said he would have resigned.
Trump enlisted him to bring order to a White House racked by inter-agency rivalry, high staff turnover and constant controversy, Kelly said. Although he sometimes clashed with other aides, he said, he tried to leave politics out of it.
Kelly served 46 years in the Marines, from the Vietnam War to the rise of Islamic State, making him the U.S. military’s longest-serving general when he retired in January 2016.
When Trump picked him to head Homeland Security, and then serve as White House chief of staff, officials from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill expressed hope that Kelly would be one of the “adults in the room” to manage a mercurial president.
To critics, Kelly failed at that task, unable to rein in Trump’s angry tweets or bring order to executive decision-making.
Kelly said he decided it was time to leave after the Nov. 6 midterm election, which saw heavy Republican losses in Congress and statehouses. The President announced Kelly’s decision Dec. 8.
“John Kelly will be leaving, I don’t know if I can say retiring,” Trump said. “But he’s a great guy.”
On Dec. 14, Trump named Mick Mulvaney, his budget director, as acting chief of staff.
Even administration critics see Kelly’s departure as worrisome, saying he brought hard-edged national security experience and the integrity and ability to stand up to the President.
“It’s a loss, there’s no question,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Kelly leaves as a partial government shutdown moves into a second week over Trump’s demands for $5 billion for a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.
The President has responded by firing off angry tweets at Democrats, who refuse to provide more than $1.3 billion for border security. The stalemate also highlights the distance, at least in language, between Kelly and Trump over the President’s signature promise — to build a wall.
“To be honest, it’s not a wall,” Kelly said.
When Kelly led Homeland Security in early 2017, one of his first steps was to seek advice from those who “actually secure the border,” Customs and Border Protection agents who Kelly calls “salt-of-the-earth, Joe-Six-Pack folks.”
“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.”
Asked if there is a security crisis at the Southern border, or whether Trump has drummed up fears of a migrant “invasion” for political reasons, Kelly did not answer directly, but said, “We do have an immigration problem.”
From the 1980s to the mid-2000s, apprehensions at the border — the most common measure of illegal immigration — routinely reached more than 1 million migrants a year.
Today, they are near historical lows. In the fiscal year that ended in September, border authorities apprehended 521,090 people.
But immigration officials are seeing a dramatic rise in families and unaccompanied minors at the border, mostly from Central America.