WASHINGTON — This past summer, the Trump administration debated lowering the annual cap on refugees admitted to the United States. Should it stay at 110,000, be cut to 50,000 or fall somewhere in between? John F. Kelly offered his opinion. If it were up to him, he said, the number would be between zero and one.
Kelly’s comment made its way around the White House, according to an administration official, and reinforced what is only now becoming clear to many on the outside. While some officials had predicted Kelly would be a calming chief of staff for an impulsive president, recent days have made clear that he is more aligned with President Donald Trump than anticipated.
For all the talk of Kelly as a moderating force and the so-called grown-up in the room, it turns out that he harbors strong feelings on patriotism, national security and immigration that mirror the hard-line views of his outspoken boss. With his attack on a congresswoman who had criticized Trump’s condolence call to a slain soldier’s widow this month, Kelly showed he was willing to escalate a politically distracting, racially charged public fight even with false assertions.
And in lamenting that the country no longer holds women, religion, military families or the dignity of life "sacred" the way it once did, Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general whose son was killed in Afghanistan, waded deep into the culture wars in a way few chiefs of staff typically do. Conservatives cheered his defense of what they consider traditional American values, while liberals condemned what they deemed an outdated view of a modern, pluralistic society.
"The real issue is understanding really who John Kelly is," said former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, a Democrat for whom Kelly worked at the Pentagon during President Barack Obama’s administration. "If you understand what makes him tick, then it all fits together."
"He is a Marine first and foremost," Panetta said. "In addition to being a Marine, he was born and raised in Boston" among blue-collar families with traditional views about God and country. "You combine those two and you realize" that he "shares some of these deep values, some of which Trump himself has tried to talk about."
As tall and commanding in a suit as he was in a uniform, Kelly has become a central figure in Trump’s orbit. After six months in the Cabinet as secretary of homeland security, Kelly took over a turbulent and tribal White House last summer and by most accounts imposed more order on the building and staff, if not the Twitter-obsessed president himself.
Kelly’s focus on improving information flow and decisionmaking in the West Wing gave the impression of a good soldier mainly concerned with process. But that obscured a player who expresses his own sharp views in selected areas, most notably immigration, where he shares Trump’s commitment to toughening the border and deporting many who are in the country illegally. His views were forged in part by his time heading the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees U.S. military operations and security in Central and South America and in the Caribbean.
Kelly not only expressed willingness to curb refugees coming into the country — in the end, Trump lowered the cap to 45,000 — he embraced Trump’s various attempts to close the border to visitors from a group of predominantly Muslim countries. He aggressively turned up the heat on internal immigration enforcement, stepping up deportation of unauthorized immigrants, even those without serious criminal records, reversing an Obama administration policy.
"Kelly has been an enabler of Trump’s mission," said Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant homeland security secretary under Obama. "Judge him that way." His image as a steady, nonideological figure trying to restore order in the White House, she added, was not true. Kelly, she said, was not "the savior or the hostage."
As a Cabinet officer, Kelly frequently lashed out at critics. In March, during a meeting with members of Arab and Muslim communities in Dearborn, Mich., Kelly threatened to walk out after being posed hard questions about the travel ban and what participants saw as the targeting of Muslim Americans at ports of entry, according to people in attendance.
During a speech in April, Kelly rebuked members of Congress who complained about what they called overly aggressive immigration enforcement.
"If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce, then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws," Kelly said defiantly. "Otherwise, they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines."
That drew a rebuke from Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. "I don’t think it’s correct for you to tell members of Congress to shut up," he said.
Kelly has also engaged in testy public debates with Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. During a June meeting, Harris and Kelly engaged in a contentious back-and-forth as she questioned him about Trump administration threats to cut off funding for sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration officials.
All of that foreshadowed his attack last week on Rep. Frederica Wilson, the Florida Democrat who accused Trump of insensitivity when he called the widow of Sgt. La David T. Johnson, who was killed in Niger. Kelly called her an "empty barrel" and told an unflattering story about her that was proved untrue by videotape of the event he mentioned.
Kelly decided himself to head out to the White House briefing room to defend the president, colleagues said, and most of his remarks reflected on his own experience as the father of a slain soldier and the nature of military service. He brought tears to the eyes of White House aides, who afterward traded emails expressing admiration for Kelly’s passionate defense of Trump. It was only afterward that they began to see how the attack on Wilson came to overshadow the emotion of the first part of his speech.
Kelly was surprised by the criticism of his speech, colleagues said, but he has not apologized to Wilson for making false statements about her. White House officials said they opted against it to avoid extending the story.
Panetta said Kelly’s attack on a congresswoman reflected his lack of experience in high-level politics. "He knows where the land mines are in the Marines, but he doesn’t know where the land mines are in politics," Panetta said. "And he’ll make mistakes as a result, and he certainly made mistakes last week in going after people in that news conference."
But, he said, it was authentic: "As somebody who worked with this guy, a lot of what he got up to say is a reflection of who John Kelly is."
© 2017 New York Times