Outgoing Chief of Staff Downplays 'Wall' Talk, Says Trump Considering Something Different
In a wide-ranging interview published Sunday, President Donald Trump’s outgoing White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said a full concrete wall along the complete southern border is not in the cards under the administration’s plans, and that the White House is instead looking to implement a combination of a metal slat fence and other measures.
“To be honest, it’s not a wall,” Kelly told the Los Angeles Times, saying the administration dropped the idea of a full concrete barrier early on in the process.
“The president still says ‘wall’ — oftentimes, frankly, he’ll say ‘barrier’ or ‘fencing,’ now he’s tended toward steel slats,” Kelly said.
In fact, Trump published a Twitter post Monday morning pretty much stating exactly that, though he still insisted the wall will be concrete in some areas.
“An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED, as has been reported by the media,” Trump wrote. “Some areas will be all concrete but the experts at Border Patrol prefer a Wall that is see through (thereby making it possible to see what is happening on both sides). Makes sense to me!”
An all concrete Wall was NEVER ABANDONED, as has been reported by the media. Some areas will be all concrete but the experts at Border Patrol prefer a Wall that is see through (thereby making it possible to see what is happening on both sides). Makes sense to me!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 31, 2018
Kelly said that he realized an all-concrete wall might not be the proper solution in early 2017 during his time as the head of the Department of Homeland Security.
During his tenure there, he visited with those who “actually secure the border” — “salt-of-the-earth, Joe-Six-Pack folks,” Kelly called them — and asked them what they needed.
“They said, ‘Well we need a physical barrier in certain places, we need technology across the board, and we need more people,’” Kelly said.
Kelly’s message seemed to dovetail with recent messaging from the White House, including a tweet from the president that showed a steel slat design for the wall.
A design of our Steel Slat Barrier which is totally effective while at the same time beautiful! pic.twitter.com/sGltXh0cu9
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 21, 2018
Kelly’s exit interview with the Los Angeles Times (his last day on the job was Monday) touched on many things.
In one part of the interview, he seemed to recontextualize former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s contention that Trump would often float ideas that went against the law, seeming instead to say that the president was exploring what he could and could not do.
“Trump sometimes pressed his advisers on the limits of his authority under the law, often asking Kelly, ‘Why can’t we do it this way?’” the Times reported.
However Kelly emphasized there was never any order to participate in illegal behavior, “because we wouldn’t have.”
“’If he had said to me, ‘Do it, or you’re fired,’” Kelly told the Times he would have chosen resignation.
Another major takeaway from the interview was a shot at former Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘ “zero-tolerance” policy at the southern border, a policy that led to a controversy over familial separations.
“What happened was Jeff Sessions, he was the one that instituted the zero-tolerance process on the border that resulted in both people being detained and the family separation,” Kelly said. “He surprised us.”
However, the main takeaway was about the wall — an issue that has dominated Kelly’s final days in office, since a funding conflict over the barrier has led to a partial government shutdown.
Kelly — a retired four-star Marine general who was brought in to impose order on the Trump administration and often clashed with the president over a multitude of issues — stood behind the president’s plan in the interview.
“Illegal immigrants, overwhelmingly, are not bad people,” Kelly told the Times. “I have nothing but compassion for them, the young kids.”
However, he said many of the illegal immigrants had been deceived by human traffickers and that both the illegal immigrants and other political forces, not the Trump administration, were to blame for immigration issues.
“One of the reasons why it’s so difficult to keep people from coming — obviously it’d be preferable for them to stay in their own homeland, but it’s difficult to do sometimes, where they live — is a crazy, oftentimes conflicting series of loopholes in the law in the United States that makes it extremely hard to turn people around and send them home,” Kelly told the Times.
“If we don’t fix the laws, then they will keep coming,” he added. “They have known, and they do know, that if they can get here, they can, generally speaking, stay.”
Kelly also said that part of the issue involved improved drug interdiction in the United States, which would reduce the power of drug cartels and gangs.
“If you want to stop illegal immigration, stop U.S. demand for drugs, and expand economic opportunity,” Kelly said.
Kelly’s remarks on the wall are bound to disappoint strict border hawks who had wanted a concrete barrier. However, if what Kelly is describing is indeed the administration’s strategy, it seems to open up an opportunity for negotiation with the Democrats over funding for border security.
Rumors going around Washington, as reported by NBC’s John Harwood, have Trump willing to accept $2.5 billion in border wall funding. The Democrats have thus far held firm at $1.3 billion in general border security funding, none of which would go for the wall.
South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has also floated a deal in which border security would receive full funding in exchange for extended protections for illegal immigrants covered under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and TPS programs.
Some combination of these could, theoretically, give each side what they have sought publicly. Trump could get funding for a plan that includes a border fence, increased high-tech security and more manpower along the border. Democrats could say they didn’t actually fund a “wall,” per se, and got the protections for illegal immigrants already in the country.
Whatever the case, Kelly insists that, while the president may act upon his instinct, it’s not a misinformed instinct.
“It’s never been: The president just wants to make a decision based on no knowledge and ignorance,” Kelly said. “You may not like his decision, but at least he was fully informed on the impact.”
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