MORRISTOWN, N.J.—Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council aide and impeachment witness whom President Donald Trump fired Friday, was just doing his job, former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told students and guests at a Drew University event here Wednesday night.
Over a 75-minute speech and Q&A session, Kelly laid out, in the clearest terms yet, his misgivings about Trump’s words and actions regarding North Korea, illegal immigration, military discipline, Ukraine, and the news media.
Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, said that Vindman is blameless and was simply following the training he’d received as a soldier; migrants are “overwhelmingly good people” and “not all rapists”; and Trump’s decision to condition military aid to Ukraine on an investigation into his political rival Joe Biden upended long-standing U.S. policy.
Vindman was rightly disturbed by Trump’s phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July, Kelly suggested: Having seen something “questionable,” Vindman properly notified his superiors, Kelly said. Vindman, who specialized in Ukraine policy at the National Security Council at the time, was among multiple U.S. officials who listened in on the call. When subpoenaed by Congress in the House impeachment hearings, Vindman complied and told the truth, Kelly said.
Related: The White House’s Impossible Job
“He did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave,” Kelly told the audience at the Mayo Performing Arts Center. “He went and told his boss what he just heard.”
Although Trump has long insisted that his call to Zelensky was “perfect,” Kelly made clear that Trump indeed conditioned military aid on Zelensky’s help digging up dirt on the Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
That amounted to a momentous change in U.S. policy toward Ukraine—one that Vindman was right to flag, because other federal agencies needed to know about the shift, Kelly said.
“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 [Vindman] was most interested in.”
When Vindman heard the president tell Zelensky he wanted to see the Biden family investigated, that was tantamount to hearing “an illegal order,” Kelly said. “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.’”
Throughout the appearance, Kelly laid out his doubts about Trump’s policies. Trump has held two formal summits with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, hoping to scuttle the country’s nuclear program through personal diplomacy. Kelly said the effort was futile.
“He will never give his nuclear weapons up,” Kelly said. “Again, President Trump tried—that’s one way to put it. But it didn’t work. 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.”
Kelly didn’t know Trump when, after the 2016 election, he was first offered the job of secretary of homeland security. Watching the contest between Trump and the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, Kelly said he had been “fascinated—not necessarily in a good way—but fascinated as to what that election meant to our country.”
He said his wife urged him to accept the position, telling him, “I frankly think he needs you and people like you.” Kelly ran the Department of Homeland Security until the summer of 2017, when Trump tapped him to replace outgoing Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Kelly left the White House early last year.
At times Wednesday, Kelly sounded like the anti-Trump. He said he did not believe the press is “the enemy of the people,” for example. And he sharply criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has steadfastly courted. Kelly described Putin as someone who is “not necessarily a rational actor.” Putin sits atop “a society in collapse,” yet is intent on restoring “the glory days of the Soviet Union,” he said.
At DHS, Kelly was responsible for advancing two of Trump’s top priorities: stopping the flow of illegal immigration, and building a border wall to make unauthorized crossings more difficult. In the speech, he said he disagreed with Trump about the scope of the problem. Trump’s border wall doesn’t need to extend “from sea to shining sea,” Kelly said. He also disapproved of the president’s language about migrants, he said. When Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, he famously described some migrants coming into the U.S. from Mexico as “rapists” and criminals.
Kelly said most migrants are merely looking for jobs. “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. I disagreed with the president a number of times.”
Responding to questions from the audience, Kelly faulted Trump for intervening in the case of Eddie Gallagher, a Navy SEAL who was convicted last year of posing with the corpse of an Islamic State fighter. Trump reversed a Navy decision to oust Gallagher, in a chain of events that led to the resignation of Navy Secretary Richard Spencer.
“The idea that the commander in chief intervened there, in my opinion, was exactly the wrong thing to do,” Kelly said. “Had I been there, I think I could have prevented it.”
The audience applauded.
When a woman in the crowd said that Trump had “elevated” Gallagher, Kelly looked out at the crowd.
“Yep,” he said.