MORRISTOWN, N.J.—John Kelly had just finished his speech and opened up the floor to questions when a woman in the audience walked up to a microphone. She asked him how he plans “to atone for the blood of those immigrant children that are dying in detention centers” and while crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.
The accusation summed up the substantial skepticism and hostility that Kelly, the former White House chief of staff, faced here last night. Throughout his 75-minute appearance at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, hecklers in the crowd stood and shouted at him about the Trump administration’s family-separation practice and Muslim travel ban, two of the most controversial policies the White House enacted during Kelly’s tenure. Kelly also got smacked by the right. This morning, after I reported on his comments questioning Donald Trump’s North Korea policy and defending the actions of Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, his former boss scolded him on Twitter for speaking out. Kelly “just can’t keep his mouth shut,” the president tweeted.
Not many people who’ve worked closely with Trump have left the administration and unburdened themselves about what they saw. Yet seldom has it been more important to hear the unsparing evaluations of people who watched Trump in action. When a president routinely presents a warped picture of his own actions, it’s essential for the people who were in the room to verify what took place.
Kelly’s experience shows why many officials decide to keep quiet. Trump’s critics aren’t eager to absolve officials who were part of an administration whose policies they abhor. And Team Trump, meanwhile, won’t tolerate a whiff of dissent.
So most of the Trump diaspora has simply decided to stay silent. We’ve heard little from former Defense Secretary James Mattis since he resigned in 2018 over Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria, though he did speak to the Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg, about his tenure last year. In that interview, he said he owed the Trump administration a period of silence, though he added that it wouldn’t last forever.
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who once reportedly called Trump a “moron,” hasn’t said all that much about the president’s go-it-alone approach to foreign policy. Gary Cohn, the White House’s former top economic adviser, clashed with Trump over tariff policy and the president’s remarks about the 2017 white-nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Since his departure the following year, though, Cohn has been circumspect. Indeed, what we know about the White House’s inner workings has largely come from the press. (Last night, Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general, praised Barbara Starr, the longtime defense reporter for the very same cable network Trump loves to hate: CNN.)
Unlike others—including some of his fellow retired generals who once staffed the administration—Kelly has decided that he will speak out, albeit on his own terms. Since his departure from the White House in January 2019, he’s given public speeches and occasional press interviews. As time passes and he gets more distance, his comments have become more revealing. Last month, during a tense period in the Senate impeachment trial, Kelly told a reporter that lawmakers needed to hear from witnesses—a position at odds with that of Trump’s legal team, which had pressed for a quick, no-fuss acquittal.
It may be that Kelly wants to be the author of his own story and inch away from the most polarizing presidency in decades. He made a point last night of mentioning that his wife urged him to join the Trump administration as a form of civic duty. Before he was chief of staff, Kelly ran the Department of Homeland Security. When he got a question about the travel ban, which was enacted in the first days of the Trump administration, Kelly said that DHS officials “were not consulted.”
“It just happened,” he continued. “And it fell on my shoulders, and the people I led at DHS, because there was this immediate confusion: How do you implement this ban?” He added: “Ethically, I did not agree with what this ban was written to do.” Six months later, he joined the White House as Trump’s chief of staff.
At one point in his speech, Kelly talked about Vindman and how young soldiers are trained. “We teach them to always tell the truth, to tell truth to power,” he said.
Kelly is making the case that he himself spoke truth to power inside the Trump administration. The trouble is, many Americans won’t be convinced. They’d likely ask why someone who held so much power couldn’t quash the policies he is criticizing.
When he told the audience about “illegal adults coming across the border,” the woman who suggested that he had blood on his hands broke in.
“No human being is illegal,” she said.
“Stay with me—they are under the law,” Kelly replied.
The woman clearly wasn’t with him.