John F. Kelly says his tenure as Trump’s chief of staff is best measured by what the president did not do

In August 2017, shortly after John F. Kelly became White House chief of staff, he convened crucial meetings on Afghanistan at President Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J.

The top Pentagon and CIA officials, the director of national intelligence, diplomats and lawmakers met with Trump when Kelly and others urged him not to surrender in Afghanistan.

“When I took over for the first time, I was willing to want to withdraw from Afghanistan,” Kelly said during a two-hour exclusive interview with the Los Angeles Times.

“I was frustrated.” It was a very important decision to make … and, frankly, there was no system at all for many reasons, the intrigue of the palace and the rest, when I got there. ”

The retired four-star naval general will leave the administration on Wednesday. First as head of National Security and then in 18 months in the White House, he presided over some of the most controversial immigration and security policies of the Trump administration.

In Friday’s telephone interview, Kelly defended his rocky mandate, arguing that it is best measured by what the president did not do when Kelly was at his side.

It was only after Kelly’s departure on December 8 was confirmed, for example, that Trump abruptly announced the withdrawal of all US troops from Syria and half of the 14,000 troops from Afghanistan, two movements that Kelly opposed. .

Kelly’s supporters say he intervened to block or deflect the president on dozens of issues, big and small. They give him credit, in part, for persuading Trump not to remove US forces from South Korea or withdraw from NATO, as he had threatened.

Kelly said he made sure Trump had access to multiple streams of detailed information before making a decision, even if the president says he often trusts his instincts, rather than the intelligence of the US. UU

“It has never been: the president just wants to make a decision based on ignorance and ignorance,” Kelly said. “You may not like your decision, but at least I was fully informed about the impact.”

Kelly allowed to spend almost every waking minute of 15 hours a day with a president apparently inundated with one crisis after another has been “hard and heartbreaking work, but you do it.”

On most days, he said, he woke up at 4 a.m. and usually came home at 9 p.m. Then, he often went directly to a secure area for reports and classified communications to continue working.

“I’m guarded by the Secret Service, I can not even go for a beer,” he joked.

Trump sometimes pressed his advisors on the limits of his authority under the law, and often asked Kelly: “Why can not we do it this way?”

But Trump never ordered him to do anything illegal, Kelly said, “because we would not have done it.”

“If he had said to me: ‘Do it or you get fired,'” Kelly said he would have resigned.

Trump enlisted him to bring order to a White House tormented by inter-agency rivalry, high turnover and constant controversy, Kelly said. Although he sometimes clashed with other aides, he said, he tried to leave politics out of this.

“I told the president that the last thing I think he needs from the chief of staff is someone who analyzes each problem through a political lens,” Kelly said.

Kelly served 46 years in the Marine Corps, from the Vietnam War to the rise of the Islamic State, which made him the general of military service in the United States when he retired in January 2016.

When Trump chose him to head National Security and then served as the White House chief of staff, Pentagon officials on Capitol Hill expressed hope that Kelly was one of the “adults in the room” to head a president. mercurial.

For the critics, Kelly failed in that task, unable to control the angry tweets of Trump or to put order in the decision making executive.

Worse still, they argue, he aggressively advocated and implemented harsh immigration measures, including the separation of migrant children from their parents at the border last summer, which quickly ran aground or was reversed in court.

Kelly rejects reports that Trump bristled at the endless briefings and Kelly’s tight control over access to the Oval Office.

But his anticlimactic departure reflects a tenure pursued from the beginning by the indignities of constant speculation, fueled by the president’s public comments that he would be fired.

Kelly said he decided it was time to leave after the midterm elections on November 6, which had strong Republican losses in Congress and state residences. The president announced Kelly’s decision on December 8.

“John Kelly will leave, I do not know if I can say I’m going to retire,” Trump said from South Lawn when he left for the Navy and Navy’s annual soccer game. “But he’s a great guy.”

Unlike Kelly’s friend, James N. Mattis, the retired Marine Corps general who resigned as secretary of defense with a public letter reprimanding the president for abandoning allies and undermining alliances, Kelly kept his advice.

But his imminent departure from the eye of the storm created a shameful vacuum in the White House, as one candidate after another publicly pulled or rejected the position of chief of staff.

On December 14, Trump named Mick Mulvaney, his budget director, as interim chief of staff.

Even critics of the administration believe that Kelly’s departure is troubling, and says that he brought a rigorous national security experience and integrity and the ability to confront the president.

“It’s a loss, there’s no doubt,” said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif).

“Now, it just seems to be a free solution for everyone,” said Senator Jack Reed (D-R.I). “There is not a coherent figure who stands there and makes sure that literally the trains arrive on time, I think that was one of Kelly’s main contributions.”

Kelly leaves while Trump has been involved in the White House when a partial closure of the government advances to a second week for his demands of $ 5 billion for a wall on the US border. UU And Mexico.

The president has responded by firing angry tweets against the Democrats, who refuse to provide more than $ 1.3 billion for border security, instead of seeking a negotiated solution.

The stalemate also highlights the distance, at least in language, between Kelly and Trump over the promise of the president’s signature: build a wall.

“To be honest, it’s not a wall,” Kelly said.

When Kelly led National Security in early 2017, one of his first steps was to seek advice from those who “secure the border,” the Customs and Border Protection agents Kelly calls “salt of the earth, Joe-Six-” Pack. ” people. ”

“They said: ‘Well, we need a physical barrier in certain places, we need technology in all areas and we need more people,'” he said.

“The president still says ‘wall’, many times frankly he will say ‘barrier’ or ‘fenced in’, now he is stretched to steel bars, but we left a solid concrete wall at the beginning of the administration, when we asked people what they needed and where they needed it. ”

When asked if there is a security crisis on the southern border or if Trump has raised fears of an “invasion” of migrants for political reasons, Kelly did not respond directly, but said: “We have an immigration problem.”

From the 1980s to the mid-2000s, border arrests, the most common measure of illegal immigration, routinely reached more than 1 million migrants a year.

Today, they are close to historical lows. In the fiscal year that ended in September, the border authorities detained 521,090 people.

But immigration officials are seeing a dramatic increase in families and unaccompanied minors at the border, mainly from Central America.

Kelly saw the corruption and violence that drove the migrations from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, first as head of the Pentagon’s Southern Command, which extends from South America to the southern border of Mexico, then to National Security.

He says that experience has given him a nuanced view on immigration and border security, one that sometimes appears at odds with Trump’s harsh policy and messages against immigration.

“Illegal immigrants, for the most part, are not bad people,” Kelly said, describing many migrants as victims deceived by traffickers. “I have nothing but compassion for them, little children.”

But he blamed the immigrants and legislators, not the White House, for the tense situation on the border, where thousands of Central Americans are stranded in Mexico, and two Guatemalan children have died in the custody of the Border Patrol in Texas and New Mexico. month.

“One of the reasons why it is so difficult to prevent people from coming, obviously it is preferable that they stay in their own homeland, but sometimes it is difficult to do where they live, it is a series of crazy, often conflicting, gaps in “The law in the United States makes it extremely difficult to change people and send them home,” Kelly said.

“If we do not fix the laws, they will keep coming,” he continued. “They know, and they know, if they can get here, they can, in general, stay.”

On Saturday, Trump blamed the Democrats for the deaths of the two migrant children this month. He also threatened to interrupt US aid to Central America if another reported caravan of migrants does not stop.

Kelly did not respond directly to Trump’s threats, but suggested that part of the problem lies on the US side of the border.

“If you want to stop illegal immigration, stop the demand for drugs in the United States and expand economic opportunities” in Central America, he said.

Kelly blamed the administration for not following the procedure and not anticipating public outrage over the two most controversial initiatives of his mandate: the Trump travel ban in January 2017 and the “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the separations of families this year.

Shortly after taking office, Trump issued an executive order that immediately suspended the entire US refugee program for 120 days, indefinitely freezing the entry of refugees from Syria and prohibiting travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Refugees already approved for resettlement, holders of green cards and others were rejected from flights, detained and, in some cases, deported. Federal judges issued emergency stays, and several iterations of the travel ban have been challenged in court.

At that time, despite the reports, the president’s order had caught him off guard, Kelly gave him a full throat defense.

“I had very little opportunity to look at them,” before the orders were announced, Kelly acknowledged in the Times interview. “Obviously, it caused a lot of thunder in the president.”

Blain Rethmeier, who helped pastor Kelly and his National Security replacement, Kirstjen Nielsen, through his Senate confirmations, put it more colorful: “He was given a sandwich the first week at work.”

“There are so many things that a chief of staff can do, particularly with a personality like Donald Trump,” said David Lapan, of the Bipartisan Policy Center, who worked with Kelly on Defense and National Security.

In May, Atty. General Jeff Sessions announced a zero tolerance policy for immigration violations. Officials in the United States had already begun to implement the policy, which caused hundreds of migrant children to separate from their parents.

Kelly said Sessions’ announcement surprised the White House.

“What happened was Jeff Sessions, he was the one who instituted the zero tolerance process on the border that resulted in the arrest of both people and the separation of the family,” Kelly said. “He surprised us.”

The chaotic implementation mainly fell to the Department of Health and Human Services and Nielsen, who were attacked for being on the White House podium and affirming that there was no policy of separation of families.

“She is a good soldier; she took the shot in the face, “said a senior White House official in the background.” Nobody asked her to do it, but by the time we could put together a better strategy, she already had it. ”

Kelly surprised some of her friends when she supported Trump after a deadly clash between neo-Nazis and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August of 2017.

When Trump blamed “both sides” for the violence, Kelly seemed to hang her