When President Donald Trump delivered the commencement address at the Coast Guard Academy in May, he was presented with a ceremonial sword — to which Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, standing nearby, quipped, “Use that on the press, sir.”
No one thought the retired Marine general, known for a single-minded focus on getting results, was being serious. But the swipe at the news media at which the president so often trains his ire showed how much Kelly has become a kindred spirit to his boss, who announced Friday he was tapping the DHS secretary for White House chief of staff.
Friday’s news, reshuffling a West Wing consumed in chaos and backbiting, cemented that relationship, which Kelly’s aides say has become exceptionally close during the months he has served as the public face and chief defender of Trump’s immigration policies.
“There’s been little noise and distraction coming from DHS,” said John Torres, chief executive officer of the security firm Guidepost Solutions and a former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the George W. Bush administration. He said Kelly probably impressed the president with his diligent approach to the job. “He’s been staying on message and moving forward.”
That may enable Kelly to bring a firmer sense of order to the White House than his embattled predecessor, Reince Priebus.
Kelly started out showing great eagerness for the DHS job: He turned down the offer of a private plane to drive himself to his first interview with Trump last fall in New Jersey, an aide recounted.
Since then, Trump met more frequently with Kelly than with other members of his cabinet in the early months of the administration, according to the aide, who asked not to be identified. Those included private interactions in which the the pair formed the kind of personal rapport that many Trump aides have found elusive.
When Trump signed an executive order during his first week in office that banned travel from several majority-Muslim nations, an action that sparked panic and confusion in airports around the world, Kelly stood by his side. When media outlets reported that Kelly had been blindsided, the general insisted he knew the travel ban was coming.
The president has also praised Kelly for his efforts to reduce illegal immigration.
During Trump’s first month in office, for example, arrests of migrants trying to illegally cross the U.S. southern border dropped by 40 percent, a staggering decrease that Trump could hold up as a victory during an otherwise turbulent opening to his presidency.
“General Kelly is doing a great job at the border,” Trump tweeted in late March. “Numbers are way down. Many are not even trying to come in anymore.”
Trump has also lauded his homeland security chief for making the case to Congress to fund a barrier along the border. That pledge, one of Trump’s signature campaign promises, won a key victory in the House on Thursday — in a dramatic contrast to the Obamacare repeal’s flame-out in the Senate hours later.
While other aides have cycled through Trump’s doghouse, the president has kept expressing confidence in Kelly.
Earlier Friday, Trump traveled to the eastern half of Long Island to deliver a speech about the scourge of the MS-13 gang and its ties to illegal immigration. But first he took a moment to highlight Kelly’s performance.
“I want to congratulate John Kelly, who has done an incredible job of secretary of Homeland Security,” Trump told a crowd at Suffolk County Community College. “Incredible. One of our real stars. Truly, one of our stars. John Kelly is one of our great stars.”
Kelly also quickly established himself as a hardliner on transportation security in March, when he banned laptops and other large electronic devices from riding in the cabins of U.S.-bound flights from 10 mostly Middle Eastern airports. He later threatened to expand the ban to flights from regions such as Europe — a move that was based on intelligence about terrorists plotting to hide explosives in consumer electronics.
Kelly’s background seemed well-suited to carry out Trump’s pledges to crack down on illegal immigration and take on the domestic threat of Islamic terrorism.
In his last military post, as head of U.S. Southern Command, he tracked smuggling routes in Central and South America and was the chief jailer for some of the world’s most hardened terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He supported keeping that prison open indefinitely, unlike his bosses in the Obama administration.
Kelly also lost a son in the war in Afghanistan in 2010, a personal tragedy that some who know him say could have hardened his views on Islamist extremists.
He’s carried out the immigration mission with a rigor that befits his military background, relying on organizational skills developed over four decades in uniform — including as the senior military aide to two secretaries of defense.
That has not always gone over well with some of his longtime admirers or foreign governments.
For example, European officials took offense when Kelly began dangling the possibility of expanding the electronics ban to Europe and elsewhere. They complained that he had failed to give them a heads-up or discuss the potential safety and logistical impacts of the move. Specifically, they warned that stacking laptops with flammable lithium-ion batteries in airplanes’ cargo holds could pose a fire risk — an assertion later confirmed by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Domestic airline and airport groups were similarly displeased when, after weeks of mulling it over, Kelly announced in June that DHS would require a slew of security updates at all 280 of the international airports servicing flights to the United States, with the threat of an even more draconian laptop ban lurkging in the wings for those that don’t comply.
“A lot of us who supported him were incredibly disappointed,” said Juliette Kayyem, a former DHS official in the Obama administration who has worked with Kelly. “We thought he’d be a moderating force.”
But Kayyem, also believes the non-nonsense and often profanity-laden Kelly may have more luck than Priebus did in controlling the chaos in the White House.
“He actually may be a more effective moderating influence in the White House than in the cabinet,” she said in an interview. “He is a very very strong personality. I think people will behave better.”