DURHAM, N.C. — Former White House chief of staff John Kelly said he disagreed with some Trump administration policies — particularly on immigration — but dodged questions Wednesday about the president reportedly intervening to secure top-secret security clearances for his daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
Kelly, in an appearance at Duke University, did not deny reports that President Donald Trump circumvented the usual process to grant the security clearances or that he later wrote a memo outlining his concerns about it. He simply said he believes any such conversations with the president would be privileged and that he's not at liberty to discuss security clearances.
It was a notable contrast to Kelly's aggressive pushback on news reports while in the White House about his actions and relationship with Trump. On Wednesday he even stressed several times the importance of a free press.
Relatively subdued and cautious, Kelly landed some gloved swipes on his former boss — at one point saying if Trump's former Democratic rival had won the presidency and asked him to serve, he would have worked for her.
"If Hillary Clinton had called me, I would have done it," Kelly said.
The wide-ranging question-and-answer session before several hundred people marked the first time Kelly, who left the White House at the end of 2018 after a rocky tenure, has publicly addressed the president's role in his family members' security clearances.
A retired four-star general, Kelly initially served as Trump's Homeland Security secretary. But it was the chief of staff job he took in July 2017 that he said was "the least enjoyable job I've ever had."
"But it was he most important job I've ever had," he said.
Kelly, though diplomatic, showed repeatedly where he disagreed with Trump on immigration issues.
On the administration's handling of children at the southern border, he was critical, though he blamed then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for catching the White House by surprise with the adoption of a "zero tolerance" policy.
Contrary to Trump's comments that many immigrants coming to the U.S. border are criminals, Kelly added: "And by the way, they're overwhelmingly not criminals. They're people coming up here for economic purposes. I don't blame them for that."
He didn't defend Trump's decision to declare a national emergency to get funding for a border wall and said: "We don't need a wall from sea to shining sea."
Kelly also expressed disagreement with deploying U.S. troops, even National Guard troops, to the border, as Trump did last fall before the midterm elections.
"Generally speaking I would always look for another way to do it," Kelly said.
Asked about Trump's executive order establishing a travel ban just days after taking office — while Kelly was Homeland Security secretary — he said it was a mistake made by inexperienced White House staff who didn't run the policy through the usual process-gathering process for input from relevant government agencies.
The White House staff "got a little bit maybe out in front if their skis," he said.
Kelly also defended the cost of maintaining the NATO alliance, the merits of which Trump has repeatedly questioned. And he took credit for initially organizing a series of briefings that convinced Trump not to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan and Syria.
When Trump tapped Kelly as his chief of staff the White House had little internal structure and was largely seen as chaotic. Kelly didn't seem eager for the job and spent his initial weeks trying to install process and order to the West Wing.
Despite reports by NBC News and others that Kelly saw himself as the "adult in the room," he denied taking that view.
"In my view everyone in the room was an adult," he said.
When he decided it was time to leave, saying the job exhausted him, he joked that the advice he gave to his successor, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, was: "Run for it."