More than a year after leaving the White House, John Kelly rebuked the president in his strongest terms yet — which were not very strong.
In a speech to a crowd at New Jersey’s Drew University Wednesday, President Trump’s former chief of staff defended Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council aide who served as an impeachment witness and was fired last Friday. He also lobbed minor criticism at the administration over North Korea, Trump’s pardoning of a war criminal, and the president’s remarks about immigrants.
Vindman “did exactly” what he should have, Kelly said. The former Marine Corps general said Vindman was right to notify his superiors about the “illegal order” he heard during a July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. “We teach them, ‘Don’t follow an illegal order. And if you’re ever given one, you’ll raise it to whoever gives it to you that this is an illegal order, and then tell your boss’,” Kelly said, according to The Atlantic.
Kelly, who was hired in the summer of 2017 to be the adult in a chaotic White House, also dismissed Trump’s attempts to work toward denuclearization with North Korea, suggesting the effort was doomed from the start. He said that, unlike Trump, he doesn’t consider the press to be “the enemy of the people.” And he called Trump’s intervention in the case of Eddie Gallagher, who was convicted of war crimes, “exactly the wrong thing to do.” He added that “had I been there, I think I could have prevented it.” (The jury’s out on that one.)
The most unconvincing part of Kelly’s speech was his attempt to whitewash his role in the administration’s immigration policy. Kelly said Trump’s fear-mongering about immigrants was unfair and inaccurate. “In fact, they’re overwhelmingly good people,” Kelly said.
But the Washington Post notes that Kelly, while criticizing Trump’s words on immigration, defended the administration’s policies. Those include the “zero-tolerance” policy on border crossings, which led to families being separated at the border. Kelly has previously tried to pin that policy on former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, but in a 2017 CNN interview he claimed ownership over the idea. “Yes I’m considering [separating families], in order to deter” migrants from Central America, he said.
President Trump got wind of Kelly’s speech Thursday morning and tweeted that the man he once called “a star,” was in fact “way over his head.”