President Donald Trump announced Friday that Secretary of Homeland Security Gen. John F. Kelly will be his new White House chief of staff, pushing a person with no past legislative experience into a role that an establishment Republican operative was apparently unable to satisfactorily fill.
Despite having a 45-year military career, much of the American public knows little about the person who will now take on a White House role that has traditionally come with a great deal of power.
"I am honored to be asked to serve as the Chief of Staff to the President of the United States," Kelly said in a statement on Friday. "To the tremendous men and women of DHS, I thank you for the opportunity to serve as your Secretary. When I left the Marines, I never thought I would find as committed, as professional, as patriotic a group of individuals. I was wrong."
Keith Nightingale, a retired Army colonel, said the appointment of Kelly to chief of staff would likely empower both Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster as the former military brass coordinate together ahead of key national security decision.
“You’re going to see a lot of offline communication between McMaster, Mattis and Kelly,” he said. “I think you'll see the three of these men coming to Trump as a prearranged united front.”
"Priebus was a political guy as are virtually all of the previous chiefs of staff,” he added. “[Kelly will] look at things in a very straightforward way and you’ll see an orderly approach to things."
A DHS spokesperson said Kelly will remain as secretary until Monday, at which point deputy secretary Elaine Duke will become acting secretary of the department.
Trump has a clear affinity for the secretary. In a speech before announcing Kelly's new job Friday in New York, the president praised him as being a "star."
One GOP insider said the announced ouster of Priebus and the appointment of Kelly one day after the Republicans’ humiliating defeat on health care could be the beginning of a larger White House pivot away from the Republican Party apparatchiks who have failed to deliver in the first six months of his presidency.
“The Republicans he’s been relying on have gotten him absolutely nowhere so it’s interesting that he’s choosing an apolitical military figure in an often highly political job.”
Just a month after winning the presidential election, Trump picked Kelly, a retired general, to be his DHS secretary, trusting him to help carry out one of the central missions of his campaign: increased immigration enforcement.
"He is the right person to spearhead the urgent mission of stopping illegal immigration and securing our borders, streamlining TSA and improving coordination between our intelligence and law enforcement agencies," Trump said in a statement when he nominated him.
He was confirmed by the Senate the same day Trump was inaugurated, 88-11 (Sen. Jeff Sessions, who had been nominated to lead the Justice Department, did not vote).
Trump's transition team was drawn to Kelly, according to the Washington Post, in part because of his experience working with DHS agencies and overseeing military operations in Central and South America. His responsibilities also once included overseeing operations at the Guantanamo Bay military base.
Even though he had a long military career, the defining moment of Kelly's time in uniform may have occurred while he was at home.
The general's son, 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, was leading his platoon while on patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan on Nov. 9, 2010 when he stepped on an explosive. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, now the Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, stood at Kelly’s door at 6 a.m. in full uniform to give him the news. Kelly said at that moment, when he saw his close friend before him, he knew what had happened. His son, he told friends afterward, “went quickly and thank God he did not suffer.”
Robert Kelly’s death made his father the highest-ranking commander to lose a child to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kelly was a three-star general; his son was on his third combat tour.
“They are the very best this country produces, and have put every one of us ahead of themselves,” Kelly said during a Veterans Day speech, four days after his son’s death.
Those who serve do so with great purpose, Kelly repeatedly said.
Even in his final days in the Pentagon before his retirement last year, Kelly, 66, referred to his 29-year-old son as his “precious boy.” A second son, John, also serves in the Marines Corps. He also has a daughter.
Kelly's son's death changed how he viewed combat. He was more strident in his defense of the forces, and he criticized the media for negative coverage of the wars, saying it allowed the public to ignore the sacrifice of its troops. And he threw himself into his work — he regularly answered emails within minutes when he served as the top military aide for Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, even when they arrived at 3 a.m.
In his final posting, as the commander of U.S. Southern Command, which includes the prison at Guantanamo Bay, he passionately defended the troops and even tried to limit media coverage at the base, which he felt was, at times, unfair.
Like Trump, Kelly has a strained relationship with the press that dates back to long before Trump's "fake news" cry was even part of everyday conversation.
In one 2015 Miami Herald article, Kelly said news coverage “breaks my heart because I know the reporting is wrong, and I believe the media representatives that report what goes on here know it’s wrong but they go on their merry way highlighting the negative aspects of what might go on at Gitmo, never giving you credit for what you do here.”
In addition to serving as the top military aide to the two defense secretaries, Kelly led a taskforce in the immediate days after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and pushed toward the northern city of Tikrit, near Saddam’s hometown. He also served as commanding general of Multi-National Force West in Iraq and I Marine Expeditionary Force. He also has served as commander of Marine Forces Reserve and Marine Forces North.
Upon retiring from the military, he volunteered to lead the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization campaigning for a national museum of the Marine Corps.
Kelly, who has a strong Boston accent, was born and raised in Massachusetts. He graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1976, according to his official biography, but continued his education through the military.
Kelly is the first general to serve as White House chief of staff since Alexander Haig, who served under President Richard Nixon and briefly under President Gerald Ford.
Lissandra Villa is a politics reporter with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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Nancy Youssef is a national security correspondent with BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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John Hudson is a foreign affairs reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
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