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John Kelly Talks Border Security, Political Polarization

In some of his first public comments since leaving his White House post, the former chief of staff to President Trump took on some controversial topics

Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, left, speaks with Duke's Peter Feaver. Photo by Shaun King.
Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, left, speaks with Duke's Peter Feaver. Photo by Shaun King.

General John Kelly spoke to a full house at Duke Wednesday about his career in the U.S. Marine Corps, his tenure as President Trump’s first Secretary of Homeland Security, and his most recent position as White House Chief of Staff.

The lecture, hosted by the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy, featured some of Kelly’s first public comments since leaving the White House and the Trump Administration.  In a discussion focusing on “Leading America in a Time of Global Turbulence,” American Grand Strategy director political science professor Peter Feaver asked Kelly about the policies he oversaw in the White House and the process of decision-making he has undertaken in his life in public service. 

 On the proposed wall at the Mexico border, Kelly spoke about a system of border enforcement rather than just a physical barrier.

“We don't need a wall from sea to shining sea,” he said, emphasizing that while some areas of the border would be best secured by a barrier, he preferred a comprehensive system that included human power and new technologies as well.  

Kelly said he agreed with President Trump’s October decision to send American service members to the border, but recognized the difficulties of deploying service members within the borders of the United States. Kelly stayed mostly tight-lipped about his thoughts on the president’s use of an emergency declaration to fund the wall, saying it was mostly in the hands of the courts.

Kelly rebuffed questions about the granting of security clearances to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, saying it was inappropriate to publicly discuss that issue. 

Throughout the discussion, Kelly returned to a focus on the responsibilities of the chief of staff. He was clear that the role is to advise the president and make the president's agenda possible.

“The role of the chief of staff is to make sure that the president is made aware of the pluses and minuses of the decisions he is making,” he said, recalling long hours, eating at his desk daily and working on Christmas. For Kelly, the grueling position was “the least enjoyable job I ever had ... But it was the most important job I’ve ever had.”

 Kelly recalled consistently asking “is it good for America” at the start and end of every decision-making meeting in the White House. He also lamented the country’s current state of political polarization.

“We don’t seem to be able to talk to each other and not hate each other at the end of the conversation,” he said, adding that he would have been willing to step into the Clinton administration had she won and asked for his assistance.

Kelly was chief of staff from July 2017 to January 2019.