RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
General John Kelly is at the center of what is arguably the most turbulent presidential administration in modern times. A decorated four-star Marine Corps general with four decades in the service, he serves as chief of staff in the Trump White House. NPR's John Burnett sat down with John Kelly in his office at the White House yesterday for an exclusive interview. John joins me in the studio this morning.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Hey, Rachel.
MARTIN: So General Kelly doesn't give a lot of on-the-record interviews. How did this come to be?
BURNETT: Well, I knew General Kelly from 2003. He was a brigadier general in the 1st Marine Division during the invasion of Iraq when I was an embedded reporter. And he was our daily battle briefer. So here we are 15 years later. He's 68 now, retired from the Marine Corps. He joined the administration to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
BURNETT: And Trump was so impressed with the immigration crackdown and the fall-off in border crossings that he tapped Kelly, then only six months into the job, to come to the White House. We were sitting at his conference table in his office in the West Wing of the White House. There was a world map on his wall and a model of the Iwo Jima memorial in the room. He was in a blue suit, red-striped tie with a plastic watch.
MARTIN: So John Kelly largely believed to have been brought into the White House because it was swirling in chaos especially in those early months. There have been reports for many months since that the president hasn't been so keen on the ways that Kelly has tried to bring more order to the West Wing, controlling who gets access to the president, for example, or vetting information that makes it to the Oval Office. What did Kelly have to say about his relationship with the president?
BURNETT: Well, I asked him about that.
Do you have any regrets about taking this job nine months ago?
JOHN KELLY: I, first of all, didn't get a vote. I took a $30,000-a-year cut to take this job from what I was doing at DHS. And I say that only because I'm one of the - probably the few people around here that isn't really rich, at my age, anyway. You know, the sense of duty. It was clear from my perch at DHS that the White House was less organized than our president deserved. So when he said I really need you to come down, what do you say? I came down.
BURNETT: Have you seriously considered leaving?
KELLY: No. There's times of great frustration, mostly because of the stories I read about myself or others that I think the world of and wonder if it's worth it to be subjected to that. But then I grow up and suck it up.
BURNETT: Kelly actually told me this job is the hardest thing he's ever done in his life. But he said he thinks the president is, quote, "a super smart guy, quick study on trade, taxes and business." I asked him if there was anything he would have done differently in that job.
KELLY: In retrospect, I wish I had been here from day one.
BURNETT: How so?
KELLY: Well, because in terms of staffing or serving the president, that first six months was pretty chaotic. There were people hired that maybe shouldn't have been hired. It's not that things were a disaster that first six months, but I believe they could have been better.
BURNETT: So Kelly says he spends an enormous amount of time with Donald Trump. He says five to eight hours a day, more time with the president than anyone outside of Trump's own family. I asked Kelly what he does the rest of his day. He says he starts at 5:30 in the morning reading the news on the ride from his home in Manassas, Va., to the White House. He ends it 15 hours later, usually with a glass of what he calls cheap red wine.
MARTIN: So, I mean, the Trump White House obviously is wrestling with a number of high-profile controversies, in particular the Russia investigation. What did he have to say there?
BURNETT: Right. Kelly made clear he can't comment directly on the investigation because that's being handled by outside legal counsel. But he definitely - the White House definitely feels the weight of the Russia probe.
The president keeps calling the Russian investigation a witch hunt. Do you think it's a witch hunt against the president?
KELLY: From what I read in the newspaper, something that has gone on this long without any real meat on the bone, it suggests to me that there is nothing there relative to our president.
BURNETT: Is there a cloud because of it hanging over this White House?
KELLY: Well, yeah. You know, it's - there may not be a cloud, but certainly the president is somewhat embarrassed, frankly. When world leaders come in - you know, Bibi Netanyahu was here, who's under investigation himself - and it's like you walk in and, you know, the first couple of minutes of every conversation might revolve around that kind of thing.
MARTIN: Wow. That's a pretty revealing comment. I mean, we don't think of President Trump as being someone who gets embarrassed about a whole lot. But it's clearly affecting his interactions with world leaders, according to Kelly. It was a pretty wide-ranging interview, a wide-ranging conversation. You also asked John Kelly about the upcoming summit between President Trump and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un. What did he have to say there?
BURNETT: Yeah, exactly. And then it was announced right before our interview about the meeting that will take place in Singapore four weeks from now. Here's our exchange.
How can you be sure that he's not going to trick you, that you've been down this road so many times before and there have been disappointments with that country?
KELLY: Not sure. But this president's got his eyes wide open. Believe me, the president really wants this to work. We talk fairly frequently about nuclear weapons, and he's just astounded that the United States, that the human race could have gotten itself into this dilemma with all of these nuclear weapons. And, you know, as he says, to help North Korea give up its nuclear program and its missile program would be a wonderful thing.
MARTIN: I mean, as you noted, before John Kelly came to the White House, he was chief at Homeland Security for six months. And in that post, he really presided over the most aggressive ramp-up of immigration enforcement in modern American history. You talked with him about the president's push on illegal immigration. What struck you?
BURNETT: Well, you can really hear that in his comments. They differ from his boss's polarizing rhetoric, and yet they still agree on tough border controls.
KELLY: Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people. They're not criminals. They're not MS-13. But they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States. They're overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth, fifth, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They're coming here for a reason, and I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws.
BURNETT: Kelly is known for his hardline thinking on deporting unauthorized immigrants and for suggesting early on that family separation could be a powerful deterrent at the border against illegal crossings and also for canceling TPS, Temporary Protected Status. This is the program that allows immigrants to stay in the U.S. from certain countries that have been struck by a natural disaster or war. And the administration recently canceled TPS for some 400,000 immigrants from Central America and the Caribbean. But when I asked him about that, what he said surprised me.
KELLY: I think we should fold all of the TPS people that have been here for a considerable period of time and find a way for them to be - a path to citizenship.
BURNETT: A path to citizenship, rather than sent home?
KELLY: Well, they were in a legal status under TPS. You take the Central Americans, they've all been here 20-plus years. I mean, if you really start looking at, you know, you've been here 20 years, what have you done with your life? Well, I've married an American guy, and I have three children. And I've worked. And I've gotten a degree. Or I'm a brick mason or something like that. That's what I think we should do.
MARTIN: A fascinating interview. NPR's John Burnett. He sat down for a one-on-one exclusive interview with the chief of staff of the White House, John Kelly. John, thank you so much for bringing this to us.
BURNETT: My pleasure, Rachel.
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