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'By no means is [Trump] a stupid man': John Kelly discusses being Trump's chief of staff at Wednesday talk

John Kelly, who just months ago was President Donald Trump's chief of staff, came to campus Wednesday night to talk about steering the White House ship. 

Kelly maintained a measured stance as he gave a talk entitled “Leading America in a Time of Global Turbulence” to a packed crowd at Page Auditorium as part of the Ambassador Dave and Kay Phillips Family International Lecture, sponsored by American Grand Strategy. Peter Feaver, American Grand Strategy director and professor of political science and public policy, moderated the talk.

Feaver asked Kelly about his role as chief of staff and whether he had to act as the “adult in the room.” Kelly said that his main function was to make sure the president’s time was spent with the right experts and stakeholders on various issues so that Trump could make informed choices. 

“By no means is he a stupid man," Kelly said. "He's an accomplished businessman, and he's got all the education and whatnot, but not everybody is an expert on everything."

Kelly said that as White House chief of staff, he focused on helping Trump make informed decisions on what was best for the United States. He worked in that role for Trump from July 2017 to January 2019. Before he held that position, he was a four-star Marine general and Trump’s first Secretary of Homeland Security.  

"[Being chief of staff] was an incredibly hard job; it was the least enjoyable job I've ever had,” he said. “But it was the most important thing I've ever done in my life.”

CNN has reported that Trump asked Kelly to intervene with security officials to get top-secret security clearances for Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, his daughter and son-in-law. Kelly said that he couldn’t respond due to executive privilege and the confidentiality surrounding security clearances.

On immigration, Kelly said he did believe there was an illegal immigration and drug flow crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, but that he sympathizes with those searching for better economic opportunities in the United States. 

Kelly said he disagreed with Trump's recent national emergency declaration—an attempt to fund a border wall. He said the travel ban on seven majority Muslim countries enacted in early 2017 was poorly executed because it didn’t get checked by other federal agencies. To him, it demonstrated that the administration “got out in front of [its] skis.” 

Kelly also described how he came to be Secretary of Homeland Secretary and eventually White House chief of staff. After Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, Kelly received a call from Reince Priebus, Trump’s first White House chief of staff, asking him to join the Cabinet.

He was confused at first—he thought Reince was a “weird name” and said he had never heard of Priebus. Kelly said he believes military officials should stay out of politics while they’re serving, and said he never discussed politics in the Marines. He was unsure if he should accept the offer to join the Cabinet, but his wife reminded him that they’re a family of service and, jokingly, that the time they were spending together “is not all it’s cracked up to be.”

After seven months in charge of the Department of Homeland Security, he received a call from Trump asking Kelly if he would be his White House chief of staff. He said he accepted the position because he believed it was his best way to serve his country.

“Politics aside, it's all about governing the country,” Kelly said. “Love ‘em or hate ‘em, whoever it happens to be, once they become president it is our best interest as a people to assist him or her as much as we can to become successful.”

When asked what advice Kelly gave to Mick Mulvaney, now Trump's acting chief of staff, he had a quick response.

"Run for it," he said, to roaring laughter.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the last quote by Kelly was "run like hell." The Chronicle regrets the error.

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