WASHINGTON ― John Kelly, the new White House chief of staff, doesn’t often talk about what he believes.
Even people who have worked with the retired Marine general for years — people who like and respect him — say they know little about his politics. What they do know is that Kelly follows orders, and that he’s demonstrated a particular zeal for defending and aggressively executing some of President Donald Trump’s most extreme policies.
Ultimately, these people say, Kelly’s personal beliefs don’t matter. In his new job, Kelly may succeed in stabilizing and professionalizing Trump’s team. But there’s no reason to believe he will change the president’s views.
If anyone can bring order to Trump’s White House, it’s Kelly, according to a former Democratic Capitol Hill staffer who worked with and likes him. But the “positive qualities that I’ve seen in him and experienced in him also sort of make me fearful,” the ex-staffer said. “I’m worried … he could just become a ‘yes man’ and create this well-oiled machine that functions effectively — or as effectively as possible — around Trump’s incompetence and erraticness.”
Kelly knows his role and that it’s not to tell the commander-in-chief what to do, said Evelyn Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia in the Barack Obama administration.
“Kelly’s a very solid, level-headed, mature professional, so temperamentally he’s very much, from what I can tell, the opposite of the president,” Farkas said. “He feels his policy views are not the issue, it’s not about what he thinks the policy should be. He does really see himself as the executor.”
Kelly, who grew up in a working-class Roman Catholic family in Boston, spent more than four decades rising through the Marine Corps ranks before retiring last year as a four-star general. He completed multiple tours in Iraq and developed close ties on Capitol Hill when he was the Marines’ congressional liaison. In his final years in the military, he headed U.S. Southern Command, overseeing operations in Latin America and Guantanamo Bay.
Like most military brass, the 67-year-old Kelly has kept his policy preferences to himself. With a reputation as a smart and thoughtful leader, he has the rare distinction of attracting praise from both sides of the political aisle. Some who have worked closely with him sense that he has hawkish foreign policy views and leans conservative, but say he was always mindful to represent the positions of his superiors.
Trump’s critics were initially relieved when the president tapped Kelly last year to head the Department of Homeland Security. When he retired, Kelly had warned other generals to stay away from the “cesspool of domestic politics,” but said he would be willing to work for either Trump or the Republican’s foe in the presidential race, Hillary Clinton.
In Kelly’s six-month tenure at DHS, he showed little willingness to publicly buck the president’s anti-immigration agenda. He has acknowledged the shoddy rollout of Trump’s first ban on visitors and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim countries (and was reportedly frustrated at being left out of early planning processes). But he ardently defends its legality and says it will make the U.S. safer.
Under his leadership, immigration enforcement agents expanded the scope of deportation efforts to pick up more non-criminals and people who have lived in the U.S. for years. And he has helped push for a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, even if it might not run the entirety of the border.
Kelly has often deflected criticism of Trump’s policies by insisting DHS is simply following the law and arguing Congress should enact legislation if members don’t like what the department is doing. That’s frustrating for his critics, who point out that he had discretion over who to target for deportations.
“He does a number of things: he washes his hands, he feels sorry and sympathetic, but there’s nothing he can do, he blames the courts,” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.). “It’s like he doesn’t assume responsibility, either because he doesn’t know or doesn’t want to. And both of those, I think, have to have the people at the White House like [strategist Steve] Bannon delirious with joy.”
During his time at Southern Command, Kelly never indicated hostility toward migrants or that he feared the U.S. population becoming less white, said Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America organization who met with him at the time. But it will soon become apparent “how cozy he is with people who clearly hold” anti-migrant, anti-Muslim views, Isacson added.
“When he has talked about carrying out the president’s policies to their extreme — having [Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents] go ahead and round up everybody, for instance — he has always cast it as, ‘These are my orders, this is what the law says, we’re going to enforce the law to its extreme,’” Isacson said.
Some of Kelly’s former associates have been surprised by his support for hardline immigration policies. In March, Kelly told CNN he was considering separating children from their parents at the border in an effort to deter people from making the often dangerous journey to the U.S. His comments surprised Mieke Eoyang, who worked with Kelly for several years when she was a Democratic staffer on Capitol Hill. “It was darker than I thought [he] would be,” she said.
Kelly later met with Senate Democrats and assured them DHS would not separate children from their parents unless there was an extenuating reason to do so, like an illness. But he declined a request from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) to promise in writing that it was not DHS policy to separate kids from their parents.
Kelly has also demonstrated some ignorance of legislative efforts on immigration ― he recently told members of Congress that he wasn’t aware of bills to help undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children. That lack of knowledge makes him more susceptible to doing whatever is asked of him, Gutierrez said.
“While you’re zoning out on your commute home, Homeland Security investigators are closing in on a dangerous child predator.” John Kelly, in an April speech
It’s impossible to know to what extent, if any, Kelly has been a moderating force behind the scenes. Democratic House members said he told them he helped save the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protects some undocumented young people who came to the U.S. as children. But he has not publicly defended it as good policy.
The White House declined to make Kelly available for comment on his views and how they align or differ from Trump’s.
The problem for Kelly is “we’ll never know how much deeper ‘the crazy’ could have been that he turned off, we’ll only see what actually makes it out and that might still be bad,” said Eoyang, vice president for the national security program at Third Way, a Washington-based centrist think tank.
Although Kelly’s former colleagues say they have never heard him denigrate foreigners or Muslims, some worry that he exaggerates foreign threats in ways that could unnecessarily frighten people and be used to legitimize Trump’s anti-immigration agenda.
While head of Southern Command, Kelly sometimes overstated the threat of the drug trade and the presence of the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah in Central and South America, said the ex-Democratic staffer who requested anonymity to talk about him. At the time, the staffer assumed Kelly was trying to persuade lawmakers to give his command more money — but that type of rhetoric continued after the general became a more public figure. On immigration, Kelly often warns of the dangers posed by criminal undocumented immigrants and the threat of the Salvadoran MS-13 gang. In his framing, the situation is dire.
“While you’re zoning out on your commute home, Homeland Security investigators are closing in on a dangerous child predator,” he said in an April speech. “While you’re binge-watching “Mad Men” on Netflix, [the Transportation Security Administration] is stopping an actual mad man with a loaded gun from boarding a flight to Disney World.”
Kelly “talks in terms that are much more threat-based and more serious about the threat in ways that I think to the public often come off as scary,” said Eoyang. “He isn’t necessarily doing the reassurance role that I think people would want the secretary of Homeland Security to be talking about.”
Even those with concerns about Kelly’s performance at DHS say they are willing to believe he is wading deeper into the Trump administration out of a sense of duty to country. “There are people when confronted with a dangerous situation would say, ‘Not me, I’m gonna keep myself safe and stay away from it.’ And there are other people who see dangerous situation and think ‘I gotta go do something about it. It’s my obligation to do something about it,’” Eoyang said. “Kelly is someone who would run toward danger.”