Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has stayed off the political radar since his resignation in December 2018, but the firing of impeachment witness Alexander Vindman has now spurred the former Marine Corps general to speak out.
In a question-and-answer session at Drew University reported in The Atlantic, Kelly defended Lt. Col. Vindman, who has been criticized by the president and Republicans, saying, ” He did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave. He went and told his boss what he just heard.”
Kelly also voiced his opinion that the July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelensky represented a quid pro quo for military aid.
“Through the Obama administration up until that phone call, the policy of the U.S. was militarily to support Ukraine in their defensive fight against … the Russians,” Kelly said. “And so, when the president said that continued support would be based on X, that essentially changed. And that’s what that guy [Vindman] was most interested in.”
Kelly further explained that the president’s request for Ukraine to investigate the Bidens in exchange for the aid represented an illegal order.
“We teach them, ‘Don’t follow an illegal order,” Kelly continued. “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 did not stop at criticizing Trump’s handling of relations with Ukraine. The former general decried Trump’s Korea policies, saying, “He [Kim Jong Un] will never give his nuclear weapons up. Again, President Trump tried—that’s one way to put it. But it didn’t work. I’m an optimist most of the time, but I’m also a realist, and I never did think Kim would do anything other than play us for a while, and he did that fairly effectively.”
The former general also said that he did not think that the media was “the enemy of the people” and distanced himself from the president’s rhetoric on immigration, saying that immigrants are “overwhelmingly good people … They’re not all rapists and they’re not all murderers. And it’s wrong to characterize them that way.”
Kelly also criticized Trump’s handling of the case of Eddie Gallagher, a former Navy SEAL convicted of posing with a dead ISIS fighter. The president reversed a decision to remove Gallagher from the SEAL team, which eventually led to the resignation of the Secretary of the Navy.
“The idea that the commander in chief intervened there, in my opinion, was exactly the wrong thing to do,” Kelly said. “Had I been there, I think I could have prevented it.”
Indeed, when Kelly left the White House, he said that his time there was better judged by what the president did not do. Mr. Trump’s behavior has become more problematic after the departures of Kelly and fellow former general, James Mattis.
President Trump responded to Kelly’s comments in characteristic fashion by attacking his former advisor on Twitter. Kelly, Trump tweeted, “just can’t keep his mouth shut.”
The lack of strong advisors who are willing to tell the president “no” has been a major problem in the Trump Administration’s recent years. The unwillingness among White House officials to contradict President Trump and tell him directly that some of his ideas are not good ones is what led to the recent impeachment. A second Trump Administration with an emboldened president and even fewer independent thinkers in the cabinet would undoubtedly lead to more trouble for the president.