Washington — Former White House chief of staff John Kelly made no attempt Wednesday to hide his unease with President Trump's decision to oust Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman from the White House and to voice his qualms with his former boss's comments about migrants and the press.
Vindman, who testified in the impeachment investigation against Mr. Trump last year, "did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave," Kelly said during an appearance at the Drew University Forum lecture series in Morristown, New Jersey, according to The Atlantic. "He went and told his boss what he just heard."
The National Security Council's top expert on Ukraine, Vindman participated in the July 25 phone call between Mr. Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during which the president urged Zelensky to investigate his Democratic political rivals.
Vindman raised concerns about the call with the NSC's lead lawyer, a move Kelly said was in keeping with his military training, as Mr. Trump's push for Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden amounted to an "illegal order" in Vindman's view.
"We teach them, 'Don't follow an illegal order,'" Kelly said. "'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.'"
The retired Marine Corps general broke with the president over his characterization of the call as "perfect," saying instead that Mr. Trump's requests were a departure from U.S. policy toward Ukraine.
"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 was most interested in."
Vindman appeared before House investigators under subpoena in November as part of their impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump's dealings with Ukraine. He was removed from his position with the NSC on Friday and escorted from the White House, just two days after the Senate acquitted Mr. Trump on impeachment charges.
Kelly also made clear his misgivings with Mr. Trump's approach to North Korea. Despite the president's beliefs to the contrary, Kim Jong Un "will never give up his nuclear weapons," said Kelly, who left his position in early 2019.
"Again, President Trump tried, that's one way to put it. But it didn't work," Kelly said, according to The Atlantic. "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."
Before joining the White House to replace Reince Priebus as chief of staff, Kelly led the Department of Homeland Security, which plays a crucial role in implementing Mr. Trump's immigration agenda. One of the president's key initiatives is to build a wall across the southern border, though Kelly said a barrier "from sea to shining sea" isn't necessary.
He also said migrants crossing the border into the U.S. aren't "rapists" as Mr. Trump has claimed, but come to the U.S. in search of work.
"In fact, they're overwhelmingly good people ... They're not all rapists and they're not all murderers, and it's wrong to characterize them that way," he said. "I disagreed with the president a number of times."
During the 75-minute event, which included remarks and a question-and-answer session, Kelly also took issue with Mr. Trump's attacks on the press, according to the Morristown Daily Record. Mr. Trump frequently calls the news media the "enemy of the people" and accuses reporters of making up sources.
"The media, in my view, and I feel very strongly about this, is not the enemy of the people," Kelly said. "We need a free media. That said, you have to be careful about what you are watching and reading, because the media has taken sides. So if you only watch Fox News, because it's reinforcing what you believe, you are not an informed citizen."
Mr. Trump attacked Kelly for his remarks and claimed the retired Marine Corps general was "way over his head" in the role. The president also appeared to liken Kelly to a scorned lover, saying he "can't keep his mouth shut."
"When I terminated John Kelly, which I couldn't do fast enough, he knew full well that he was way over his head. Being Chief of Staff just wasn't for him," the president said in a series of tweets. "He came in with a bang, went out with a whimper, but like so many X's, he misses the action & just can't keep his mouth shut, which he actually has a military and legal obligation to do."
"His incredible wife, Karen, who I have a lot of respect for, once pulled me aside & said strongly that 'John respects you greatly. When we are no longer here, he will only speak well of you.' Wrong!" he said in a second tweet.
When I terminated John Kelly, which I couldn’t do fast enough, he knew full well that he was way over his head. Being Chief of Staff just wasn’t for him. He came in with a bang, went out with a whimper, but like so many X’s, he misses the action & just can’t keep his mouth shut,.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 13, 2020
....which he actually has a military and legal obligation to do. His incredible wife, Karen, who I have a lot of respect for, once pulled me aside & said strongly that “John respects you greatly. When we are no longer here, he will only speak well of you.” Wrong!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 13, 2020