Friends say White House chief of staff is no politician

Friends say White House chief of staff is no politician
© Greg Nash

People who have known John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE for years say no one should expect the White House chief of staff to act like a career politician.

They say the Kelly who offered a detailed and moving account of how the bodies of soldiers killed in action are packed in ice before being transported back to their families is the same man they’ve known for years — someone who speaks his mind and feels deeply about service to the country.

They also recognize the Kelly in his sharp and combative attack on Rep. Frederica WilsonFrederica Patricia WilsonTrump, Obamas and Clintons among leaders mourning Aretha Franklin Clyburn rips Trump over Omarosa 'dog' comment: 'I don’t know of anything that has been more troubling to me' Dem lawmaker calls Trump racist in response to 'dog' comment MORE (D-Fla.), who appeared to offend the former Marine general with her participation on a call President Trump made to a fallen soldier’s widow. Kelly’s response angered congressional Democrats.


And they haven’t been surprised that Kelly has sometimes fallen into controversy — first with the attack on Wilson, and later with televised comments in which he said the Civil War was caused by a failure to compromise.

“I think John does speak his mind and says what he thinks,” former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, for whom Kelly served as a senior military aide during his time at the Pentagon, said in an interview with The Hill.

“The thing that John is not, really, is a politician. He’s never played that role.”

Panetta and others say Kelly is unaccustomed to the political spotlight.

Before becoming chief of staff, he served as Trump’s secretary of Homeland Security for a little more than six months — but before that had not held a politically appointed position.

Since taking over the White House job, Kelly has undertaken a brutal schedule. He’s up at 5:30 a.m. every morning and at his desk by 7 a.m. He doesn’t leave the White House until night — a schedule typical for a presidential chief of staff.

Some blame his comments about the Civil War at least in part on that marathon schedule.

“By 5 p.m. he’s been on the job almost 12 hours. I don’t know when they taped that news segment, but he looked tired to me,” said the source close to Kelly. “Now you’re answering questions in front of millions of people. He’s not really trained for that.”

The source added: “He gets his hands burned by saying a comment and trying to describe his sense. He doesn’t desire the stage. That has caused some setbacks on him. He’s telling his own personal opinion and people are attacking him from a different perspective.”

Perceptions about Kelly have changed in the last six weeks.

Kelly is one of several generals working in high-profile positions for Trump, and was initially cast by some as a career servant of sorts focused more on keeping the government functioning than in carrying out a political agenda for the president.

He has consolidated power within the White House, jettisoning freelancers such as short-lived communications director Anthony Scaramucci and chief strategist Stephen Bannon, who had his own line to the president that went around Kelly’s predecessor as chief of staff, Reince Priebus.

The seemingly anguished expressions on his face during Trump’s controversial remarks about how there were good people on both sides of the white supremacist marches in Charlottesville, Va., in August played into the narrative of Kelly as a public servant holding things together.

But since then, it’s become more clear that Kelly shares some views with Trump and others in the administration, particularly on national security and immigration.

Kelly reportedly told other members of the administration that if it were up to him, the number of refugees the United States would accept each year would be between zero and one. The administration decided to limit the number of refugees in the next year to 45,000 — the lowest level since the Reagan administration.

This week, reports emerged of Kelly’s frustration about a pending Homeland Security Department decision on tens of thousands of Hondurans and Nicaraguans who had been given temporary residence. Kelly, along with White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, reportedly pressured acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke to expel them.

Sources say that Kelly’s views on immigration and border control, which have been criticized as hard-line, come from his sharp focus on staunching the illegal drug trade when he led U.S. Southern Command.

“He has no reservation that we need stronger border control,” said the source who has known Kelly for decades. “It's very much a personal thing for him.”

The high-profile political role is new for Kelly, who spent more than four decades in uniform separated from the partisan feuds in Washington.

Those who know Kelly the general describe him as a genuine, frank and approachable man.

“He is a Marine first and foremost. He basically spent his life in the Marine Corps in various roles, obviously went to war, led troops into battle, and felt very strongly about the Marine Corps,” Panetta said.

“Semper Fi is something that is part of his very fiber as a human being.”

Kelly was born into a working class Irish Catholic family in Boston. He began his career with the Marines in 1970, rising through the ranks to serve in a number of high-profile positions.

“I grew up in Boston in a very, very, very Marine town,” he told NPR in a 2015 interview. “So back in my neighborhood in Boston, a working-class neighborhood, when you got your draft notice, you went down, and you took your draft physical. And then, if you passed it, you joined the Marine Corps.”

Kelly served as the Marine commandant’s liaison officer to the House of Representatives in the mid-1990s and went on to serve three tours in Iraq. In 2010, Kelly’s son died in battle in Sangin, Afghanistan, an event that has had a tremendous impact on his life.

“I can remember going with him to Arlington to visit his son’s gravesite and that was just, for me, a very moving experience, but I think it also told me a lot about John and the sense of loss that he experienced from this, when he lost his son,” Panetta said.

It was Gen. Joseph Dunford, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and one of Kelly’s closest friends, who delivered the news that his son had been killed in Afghanistan.

Kelly has delivered striking speeches reflecting on loss and honoring American service members, one commemorating Veterans Day in 2010 — just two days after his son’s death.

“We read that speech back in Afghanistan and it was pretty f------ powerful,” said one Marine who served alongside Kelly’s son.

In 2011, Kelly became the senior military assistant to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and later to Panetta.

“We developed, obviously, a strong relationship. I think because I am a son of Italian immigrants and his mother is Italian, even though his name is Kelly,” said Panetta. “We both in many ways came from the same backgrounds and share some of the same values, and I think as a result just built a strong relationship during the time I was secretary.”

President Obama chose Kelly to lead Southern Command in early 2012, putting him in charge of national security operations covering a vast region that includes Central and South America and Guantanamo Bay.

There, Kelly was known for speaking his mind, publicly objecting to the Obama administration’s efforts to shutter the military prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and to open up all combat jobs to women.

Less than a year into retirement from the Marines, Trump, then president-elect, chose Kelly to serve as his secretary of homeland security. He was confirmed in an 88-11 vote on Inauguration Day.

Kelly won the ire of congressional Democrats for lashing out at Wilson for what he said was her for bragging about securing federal funding for a field office in her state in 2015, an allegation that was later disproven.

“[For] Kelly to do that, I got to tell you, it is shocking to the conscience,” Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsTrump makes new overtures to Democrats Dems eye ambitious agenda if House flips Oversight Dems call for probe into citizenship question on 2020 census MORE (D-Md.) told CNN. “And you know what I'm afraid of, you know, a lot of people look at President Trump and hear the various insulting things he says, and I'm hoping that that is not metastasizing to General Kelly, because, again, I think he — I find him to be an honorable man.”

The controversy initially erupted because Wilson had criticized Trump’s comments to a Gold Star widow, suggesting they were insensitive.

Kelly has refused to apologize, and a source close with Kelly said the controversy over the remarks “destroyed his heart” because he had given Trump advice about making the call.

Panetta, who advised Kelly on the challenges of serving as chief of staff when he took the job, said Kelly “has to be careful” not to undermine his credibility as chief of staff.

“That’s where I think John just has to be careful that when he’s asked to do those things, that he understands that he’s really got to think about what he does say, recognizing that it can be misinterpreted, recognizing that it can become controversial,” he said.