MORRISTOWN, New Jersey – For more than an hour, retired Gen. John Kelly avoided the elephant in the room, focusing on the “Governance Versus Politics” topic promised during his speaking appearance Wednesday at the Mayo Performing Arts Center.
But after admitting he clashed on several issues with President Donald Trump during his tumultuous term as his chief of staff, Kelly finally addressed repeated questions from the audience about the difficulties he encountered in the West Wing.
“I’m disappointed in myself for leaving, but it was a killer, I mean, no joke,” Kelly said about serving Trump, starting as Secretary of Homeland Security before replacing Reince Priebus as White House chief of staff in June 2017.
Like many key West Wing staffers, however, Kelly eventually left his position at the end of 2018 amid reports he had fallen out of favor with Trump.
In Morristown, Kelly spoke for 45 minutes as a featured speaker in the Drew University Forum lecture series, followed by a 30-minute audience Q&A.
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Kelly identified a few key issues where he clashed with Trump, including the Muslim immigration ban and the president’s repeated characterization of the media as “the enemy of the state.”
“The media, in my view, and I feel very strongly about this, is not the enemy of the people,” he 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.”
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Kelly also defended Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the National Security Council aide who testified in the House impeachment inquiry into allegations that Trump used military assistance to pressure Ukraine into opening investigations for his political benefit. Vindman was fired from his NSC post days after Trump was acquitted by the Senate on two articles of impeachment stemming from the inquiry.
The president’s former chief of staff said Vindman “did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave,” by reporting his concerns about a phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, The Atlantic reported.
“We teach them, ‘Don’t follow an illegal order. 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 said, according to The Atlantic.
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The Q&A session included an extended confrontation about separating immigrant families on the U.S. southern border with Karol Ruiz, an attorney and co-president of Wind of the Spirit, a Morristown nonprofit immigrant resource center.
Other Wind of the Spirit members joined several other groups outside the theater to protest Kelly’s appearance, including divinity students from the Drew University Theological School.
Inside, Kelly was twice interrupted by protesters who stood up and shouted, “Hey Kelly, separating families is inhumane.” Both were removed by security.