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Transcript: White House Chief Of Staff John Kelly's Interview With NPR

White House chief of staff John Kelly is pictured at President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., last month.
Mandel Ngan
AFP/Getty Images
White House chief of staff John Kelly is pictured at President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., last month.

Editor's note: This post contains language some may find offensive.

NPR's Southwest correspondent John Burnett speaks with White House chief of staff John Kelly. Here's a partial transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity.

Burnett started by talking with Kelly about how much time he spends with President Trump:

John Kelly: I do spend a huge amount of time with him. Now, less so today. When I when I got here there was a lot of work to be done organizational work to be done. So I spent every minute with him. But that was to train the staff as to how to interact with the president because it was that needed to be done and to organize how people interact with the president in the Oval Office.

John Burnett: So how many hours a day would you figure?

I don't know, seven or eight.

Wow, OK.

Five, six, seven, eight.

What do you do to start your day?

The minute I start, I start. I mean it's work. I leave the house. We live, we moved to a house in Manassas, which was the house that we would live in I'd never work another day when I retired from the Marine Corps. So it's about a 40-minute drive. I get driven in by the Secret Service. I get my fair amount of threats. But anyway.

So when I get in the car at 5:30 I have to read, basically cover-to-cover, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the CNN website, the FOX News website, Politico and a website I never read before until I got this job: Breitbart. So, you know, to get that end of the political spectrum. So that's from 5:30 and I get home at 8, 8:30 or later.

OK. What do you what do you drink when you get home?

Wine usually. Unless my wife's in California, which she is now, and you know I hit the hard stuff.

What kind of wine?

Cheap red wine.

So what's harder — commanding Marines in a combat zone in Iraq or bringing order to the Trump White House?

Working in the White House is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, bar none.

Talk about that.

Well, first, with all due respect to people like yourselves, I was not ready for the press that covers a White House. All of my time, and you remember it a little bit, I think, we were pretty good to you guys. We had a good team effort going in the field. When I was working in the Pentagon at a higher level, senior level the Pentagon press corps were really good to work with. I mean they, they seldom wrote or did the story you wanted to read, naturally, but they were really professional in trying to get the accurate aspect of every story. It wasn't personal. It was pretty professional. And I still call some of them ... good acquaintances. This is vastly different. This is — it's personal, it's vicious. ...

I did my first off the record — that was immediately violated. But after about six weeks in a job one of the reporters said to me, "Look you were our worst nightmare. This place was a clown show before you showed up. We didn't think this president would last a year [or] 18 months. Now that you're here, there's order to the place. The leaks all but went away. So, sorry but you got to go." So here I am, sitting, still here.

With your background valuing chain of command and military discipline, do you feel like you've brought some discipline and integrity to this inner circle?

They overstate that, press covers that a lot. Again, I don't mean to be too hard on the press but they — I know everything. Right? And so when I read the press accounts of what's going on here, I say, "gee, how could they have gotten that that wrong?" So I think the press, and maybe it's because only certain people talk and those people maybe leak or are sources — and maybe those people aren't as honorable as they should be. But when I read what they write, I think to myself they may have had some low-level source and that's — and to write a story like that — whatever "that" is for a major newspaper like the Post or the Times -- to base it on almost rumor strikes me as being a little bit — not the way to do business.

There's been some reporting about some derogatory words that you use to describe the president. I know you've denied it. How would you describe your relationship with Donald Trump?

The president and I have a very close relationship. I've always — my view is to speak truth to power. I always give my opinion, on everything. Sometimes — he always listens. Sometimes he takes the opinion, sometimes he doesn't. The good thing about the president is he does listen to people and when I — the organization I brought to the place is whatever the topic is, generally speaking, we will have a group in there of very — a spectrum. So if it's taxes, you'll have someone who thinks you know very liberally about taxes and someone who's on the arch-conservative side and then a sprinkling of everyone in the middle. And then there's a discussion and generally if there's a decision to be made then I help execute that. So we have a very close relationship in the sense of – I'm his chief of staff and I tell him what I think is always the truth is and whether he goes along with my recommendations is another story.

How would you describe his intellect?

Very smart – a very, very smart guy. I mean a super smart guy. But I think it wouldn't surprise you to know he's very strong. He's very strong in terms of trade, taxes, business and he's a quick study on everything else. He's a pretty bright guy.

So do you have any regrets about taking this job nine months ago? You know, there have been reports that you're considering leaving.

First of all, I didn't get a vote. Took $30,000 a year cut to take this job from what I was doing at DHS and I say that only because I'm one of the probably the few people around here that isn't really rich, at my age anyways. You know, the sense of duty. It was clear from my perch at DHS that the White House was less organized than our president deserved. So when he said, "I really need you to come down, what do you say?" I came down.

You seriously considered leaving?

No. I mean there's times of great frustration, mostly because of the stories I've read about myself or others that I think the world of which is just about everyone that works at the complex. You wonder if it's worth it to be subjected to that. But then I grow up and suck it up.

Do the president's inaccurate statements; everything from the number of people he believes voted illegally, to the size of the inauguration crowd, or to the payments to the lawyer regarding Stormy Daniels — do inaccurate statements make your job harder?

You know, I'm not so sure they're inaccurate. I wasn't here for the for the first two examples. One of the things we've all done here we have to do here, John, in terms of these outside accusations — we've had to really build a firewall between the White House staff that works for the president of the United States and the personal legal staff that works for Donald Trump. And that comes together in one individual here that works at the White House. But, like, Sarah Sanders when she's asked a question and she says, "I don't know, ask Rudy Giuliani," she's not punting it. She... we all work very hard not to know the issues related to Donald J. Trump. We work very, very hard to master the issues related to the president of United States.

Are there things that you wish you personally had done differently in this job?

In retrospect, I wish I had been here from Day 1.

How so?

Well because that's six months, I think in some cases in terms of staffing or serving the president that first six months was pretty chaotic and there were people — some people hired that maybe shouldn't have hired some people that were — it was just, I wish I'd been here from the beginning because I could have brought the organization from, you know, from Day 1 as opposed to — Now it's not that things were a disaster for that six months, but I believe they could have been better.

The president keeps calling the Russian investigation a witch hunt, do you do you think it is? Do you think it's a witch hunt against the president?

From what I read in the newspaper, because I have no knowledge — as I say, I've built a firewall. From what I read and observe in the news media — something that has gone on this long without any real meat on the bone, it suggests to me that there is nothing there, relative to our president.

Is there a cloud hanging over this White House?

Well yeah, you know, there may not be a cloud but certainly the president is you know somewhat embarrassed, frankly. When world leaders come in - it's kind of like you know Bibi Netanyahu is here — who's under investigation himself — and it's like, you know, you walk in and you know the first couple of minutes of every conversation might revolve around that kind of thing.

What kind of thing?

Well, it's a distraction.

The Russia investigation?

Or whatever. It's just a distraction for him. He has, you know, he has said this himself in the press or publicly that he really wants to reach out and have a good relationship with say Russia in the same way the head does with Xi from China. And hopefully Kim from North Korea. But he's but he's a little hesitant to do that right now because of what you say is a cloud.

Regarding the Iran nuclear deal. You served as special assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and at U.S. Southern Command with responsibility over Latin America. You understand the importance of working with U.S. allies. Are you concerned we're going to lose our trust because of pulling out of the Iran deal?

I don't think so. I mean it was a horrible deal. The best deal someone thought they could get. Horrible deal.

What's Step 2 now that we pulled out? What is the new deal?

Re-establishing, not re-establishing, but ensuring that a country that has been has been very unreliable in their claims about not ever having a nuclear program etc. doesn't get a nuclear program. And in a country that is developing [intercontinental ballistic missiles] ... the rational man and woman can't quite understand why he'd need an ICBM that could reach Europe or the United States. It's the same kind of point that he's making to Kim — why do you need nuclear weapons? Why do you need an ICBM that can hit the United States? We have no intention of invading you. Work this thing out with your brothers and sisters to the south. So, the Europeans are decided to stay in. And I think we'll help them improve on the [agreement] that they have with Iran.

Regarding the upcoming summit with Kim. How can you be sure that he's not going to trick you? We've been down this road so many times before and there have been disappointments with that country.

Not sure, but this president's got his eyes wide open. There is, he really — believe me – the president really wants this to work. We talk fairly frequently about nuclear weapons and he's just astounded that the United States that the human race could have gotten itself into this dilemma with all of these nuclear weapons. As he says, to help North Korea see the light, give up its nuclear program and its missile program would be a wonderful thing. But, as he said, hopefully it'll work out maybe it won't. But I don't think he'll fall for it in the same way. I know he won't fall for it in the same way that past presidents have - that get strung along, strung along, lift the sanctions, give them money and get nothing for it.

Finally, to immigration. You were only at DHS for about six months. But you had a consequential time there. Aggressive enforcement was begun right after the president came into office. Are you still interested in border security and immigration from your perch here?

Yeah, I mean it's not something I think about as much as when I was at DHS. But you know when I was at DHS, I certainly carried the same point of view and that is we have immigration laws. We have border protection laws that are simply ignored or have been ignored.

One of the things that we did at my first day at DHS we just said to the men and women of ICE and the men and women of CBP — Customs and Border Protection; just go to your job, and do it legally do it humanely. But go do your job. That, combined frankly, with Mr. Trump coming in — his campaign promises and whatnot — the immigration fell off dramatically. Mostly because people are not willing to take the chance of spending a huge amount of money to them – $6,000, $12,000, $15,000 — to have the traffickers get them to the United States.

And if you believe what Donald Trump was saying and he does believe it — quick return to where you came from. We have a serious problem internally. We have very, very, I'd say chaotic immigration laws that we have just got to change. I mean this is all on the United States Congress — they don't do. They have not done anything to address this. And I could give you example after example of laws.

In terms of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, where are you putting your hopes now?

It's astounding to me, and it should be to the world — that the president from what he was saying during the campaign to what he agreed upon with the with the four pillars, to take 670,000 people who were covered under the Obama DACA program ... The second 670,000 of course were the ones that were going on under the Obama administration that for some reason didn't get around to registering which is very easily done.

I believe you said that they needed to get off their lazy asses and register.

I believe that's a quote. But for whatever reason they didn't get off their butts. The fact is that this president said, "throw them in there so," we get 1.8 million. That was earthshaking enough. And then a path to citizenship. I thought based on all of the rhetoric I was getting from the particularly the Democrats on the Hill both sides of the aisle both sides of the hill that they, I mean that was Nevada and they you know they tap that around and tossed it around.

What would you like to see happen legislatively right now?

Right now I would like to see legislatively the four pillars enacted. And I think those that did not grasp the four pillars and pass it, have let down 1.8 million DACA people — either full recipients or the ones that didn't get around to signing up and they're still in limbo. And this president wants to get them out of limbo and get them into heaven. But it is astounding to me with all of my interactions with the Hispanic Caucus, the Democratic Caucus, all of that that when this stuff was served up on a silver platter they did nothing.

And then in terms of temporary protected status, there was a report that you called acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke and said, "I urge you to cancel that status for the Hondurans." Is that true?

It is not true. I called her because she was not making a decision and I said, "look, I don't care what you do."

So you think all the TPS status should be canceled for all the countries?

I think we should fold all of the TPS people that have been here for a considerable period of time and find a way for them to be [on] a path to citizenship. Use the Haitians as an example.

A path to citizenship rather than sent home?

Yeah. Well, they were there in a legal status under TPS, that's a big deal. They're under legal status. You take the Central Americans that have been here 20-plus years. I mean if you really start looking at them and saying, "OK you know you've been here 20 years. What have you done with your life?" Well, I've met an American guy and I have three children and I've worked and gotten a degree or I'm a brick mason or something like that. That's what I think we should do — for the ones that have been here for shorter periods of time, the whatever it was that gave them TPS status in the first place. If that is solved back in their home countries they should go home.

So did you disagree with the decision by your successor Secretary Nielsen that Salvadorans and Hondurans and Haitians who've been here a very long time should have been allowed a path to citizenship?

I did not talk to her about it. But let me go back to ... Duke, one more time. My phone call to her was I don't give a shit what you decide. Just make a decision. We were at the point we needed to make a decision on that particular group of people. She seemed to be incapable of making it. I just called and said I don't care what you do. Just do something. They stay or they go. ...

In fact, she was in the office here on her last day apologizing for however that story get out. But anyway.

I think by doing what she's done Secretary Nielsen once again is forcing the United States Congress to do something. I mean I can't tell you, John, the number of times in my hearings when they would ask me about why we're doing this so that what your philosophy is on immigration or whatever. I just said look you make the laws. I execute the laws. I can't pick and choose what laws to enforce. I would be, I should be thrown out of the job if I do that. Just do your job. Fix the problem. Or as I said in some remarks just shut up and let us do our job.

The president sent National Guard troops to the border and said he's going to keep them there until the border wall is built. Do you think that Mr. Trump continues to put too much stock in a border wall as the answer to border security?

You know, physical barriers work. Mr. Trump ... two years before he became the president-elect was talking about barriers along the border. He acknowledged the fact way back then that this was not going to be a concrete wall from sea to shining sea. That there were places we didn't need a wall. Places that were just too rough and people didn't know the big bend section of Texas is an example. You don't need a wall there. You know the mountain goats can't get through.

There's other places particularly where you are close to cities on the U.S. side will you very definitely need a barrier ... along the California border cut illegal immigration by 97 percent. So those border crossings — San Ysidro I think is 100,000 people come in every day, legally Mexicans. Something like that. And let me say a very, very large number. And at the end of the day a very, very large number the same people go back home to Mexico. What did they do in the United States? They shop, they work. They bring their kids to school. You know Catholic schools or private schools. Bring them back. We want that kind of movement. What we don't want is illegal immigrants.

Are you in favor of this new move announced by the attorney general early this week that if you cross the border illegally even if you're a mother with your children [we're going] to arrest you? We're going to prosecute you, we're going to send your kids to a juvenile shelter?

The name of the game to a large degree. Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people. They're not criminals. They're not MS-13. Some of them are not. But they're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society. They're overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from – fourth, fifth, sixth grade educations are kind of the norm. They don't speak English, obviously that's a big thing. They don't speak English. They don't integrate well, they don't have skills. They're not bad people. They're coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence.

Family separation stands as a pretty tough deterrent.

It could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent. A much faster turnaround on asylum seekers.

Even though people say that's cruel and heartless to take a mother away from her children?

I wouldn't put it quite that way. The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever. But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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