Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, during an appearance in Seattle this month, tried to distance himself from President Donald Trump’s record on immigrant-family separations and anti-media rhetoric — and even had some kind words for Obamacare — while facing at-times hostile questions about his role in advancing Trump’s agenda.
The comments, captured in a video of the event, came during a little-publicized lecture and question-and-answer session before about 450 people at Lakeside School, the elite, $36,000-a-year private school in North Seattle, whose alumni include Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen.
The Feb. 5 remarks were similar to some Kelly has made at a handful of speaking events around the country since his resignation last year. In a talk this month at Drew University in New Jersey, Kelly defended fired impeachment-inquiry witness Alexander Vindman, saying the Army lieutenant colonel had done his duty in reporting concerns about Trump’s call last summer with Ukraine’s president.
In Seattle, Kelly, a retired four-star general, spoke for about an hour and 20 minutes, portraying himself as a moderating influence in a chaotic White House. He led in with a description of his military career, which started after he says he begged a doctor to ignore foot problems — “bone spurs or flat feet or something like that” so he could enlist in the Marines.
Without directly attacking the president, Kelly parted from Trump on his frequent condemnations of news media. “The press, in my view, are not the enemy of the people,” he said. “We need a press to inform us about what’s going on to hold our government accountable to tell us what’s going on in our communities.”
Still, Kelly said he learned in the White House “the press has very much taken sides, either for or against the current occupant.” He said people who watch only Fox News are “just as misinformed” as those who watch only CNN. “What I do, I watch Fox News, and I watch Rachel Maddow, and everything in between,” he said.
Kelly disavowed some of Trump’s descriptions of immigrants and asylum seekers crossing the border from Mexico.
“The people that have come into the country illegally from the southwest border are overwhelmingly good people. They’re not bad people. They’re not rapists and murderers and not drug dealers. They’re overwhelmingly good people,” he said.
But Kelly defended the administration’s enforcement of U.S. immigration restrictions, saying “the laws are created by the Congress — they can change the laws.” He also pointed to “massive amounts” of cocaine and other drugs” flowing across the border, feeding drug consumption in the United States.
Tying the drug crisis to health care, Kelly offered some praise for the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which Trump vowed to overturn on day one of his presidency and has continually sought to undermine. Kelly lamented that Trump and Congress are not working to strengthen the law.
“You know, Obamacare, so-called, was not perfect, but it was a start, but they’re not doing anything,” Kelly said. “An awful lot of Americans have no health care (or) have very limited health care. It’s a national problem. It can only be solved by the Congress and the President, and they’re not even talking to each other about it.”
Some in the audience of Lakeside students, alumni, parents and staff challenged Kelly’s complicity in advancing Trump’s policies and his shattering of presidential norms.
One of the first questioners asked how Kelly could work for “an administration steeped in mendacity, with a president who puts himself and his business interests ahead of his country, and who uses language to disseminate distrust, discord and suppress critical thinking?”
Kelly said he acted out of a sense of duty, born of his military service.
“Because let’s assume for a second that I agree with what you just said about President Trump. I’m gonna stay away from whether I — but just assume for a second. Then he needed someone like me desperately, and that’s why I went into it,” he said.
He suggested he helped ward off some of the president’s impulses, and that current Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney was not doing the same. “You’ll never know how important, assuming what you said about him is true, you will never know how important it was to have someone like me there,” Kelly said, in remarks that drew applause.
“I feel, frankly, in a lot of ways, like I’ve let people down because I’m still not there. Because he did not replace me with someone like me,” he said.
He added: “I didn’t say I agree with you that Mr. Trump is like that.”
Kelly’s talk at Lakeside was part of an endowed lecture series on “political, ethical and philosophical subjects” intended to promote “open discussion and a robust exchange of ideas,” said Amanda Darling, a spokeswoman for the school, in an email.
Kelly has no prior connection with the school and was paid for his appearance; Darling said Lakeside is “contractually obligated to keep speaking fees confidential.” In addition to his lecture, she said, Kelly was interviewed by students from the school’s newspaper and spoke with an American Studies class and an upper-level Spanish class that has a focus on immigration.
While his question-and-answer session remained mostly cordial, one apparently frustrated audience member denounced Kelly — and the school for inviting him.
The exchange came after Kelly commented on China’s persecution of its minority Uyghur population of Muslims, calling it “a massive human-rights violation that no one seems to care about.”
An audience member, who identified himself as a former student, shouted: “What about the human-rights violation on the southern border? You work for a company that runs the largest detention center in Texas,” the man said, referring to Kelly joining the board of Caliburn International, the conglomerate that operates detention facilities.
“What’s your point?” Kelly responded.
“You are an absolute hypocrite. You’ve been lying to everyone,” the man said, drawing boos from some in the audience. He turned his ire to school leaders, saying “You bring this guy in to spread propaganda and no one calls it out. It’s hypocritical!”
Others also questioned Kelly on the Trump administration’s hard-line immigration stances, including family separations condemned by Amnesty International as “spectacularly cruel” and “nothing short of torture.”
Despite his own past statements in support of the concept, Kelly blamed others in the Trump administration, notably former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for the “zero-tolerance” crackdown at the border two years ago, which led to the widespread family separations.
“I thought it was a bad idea. Ethically, I didn’t like it. I didn’t think it would … play well in the United States,” Kelly said in his Seattle talk, arguing at the very least the policy should have been preceded by six months or more of planning and funding to provide adequate shelter for detainees.
In early 2017, when he still headed Homeland Security, Kelly told CNN that his department was considering separating undocumented children from their parents at the border. Kelly also publicly defended the policy after it was announced, telling NPR in May 2018 migrants from Central America “don’t integrate well” and that separations “would be a tough deterrent.”
But at Lakeside, Kelly criticized Sessions for announcing the zero-tolerance policy without enough forethought, leading to months of chaos in which thousands of families were separated, and the government losing track of some children.
“People are supposed to be smarter than that … It was predictable as the sun coming up tomorrow morning. That if we did that then it would go crazy and the press, people like yourself would see it as a human rights violation. It was a bad idea. We could have stopped it. But as I say, the attorney general got out in front of my skis,” Kelly said.
Previous reports of Kelly’s comments since leaving the White House have drawn Twitter responses from Trump.
“He came in with a bang, went out with a whimper, but like so many X’s, he misses the action & just can’t keep his mouth shut,” the president tweeted on Feb. 13 after Kelly’s comments defending impeachment witness Vindman.