On the phone was Reince Priebus — the man that Kelly would later supplant as White House chief of staff — who told Kelly, “Mr. Trump would like to have an opportunity to talk to you about maybe going into the administration.”
After serving 45 years in the Marine Corps, Kelly was only eight months into his retirement. Kelly consulted with his wife about the offer from the Trump team. Karen said, “If we’re nothing, the Kelly family is a family of service to the nation. If they think they need you, you can’t get out of it.” She added jokingly, “Besides, I’m really tired of this quality retired time we’re spending together.”
Kelly soon met with Trump who told him, “I’d like you to take the hardest, and what I consider to be the toughest job in the federal government.” Kelly says he panicked, briefly thinking that the offer was to run the State Department, but Trump said he was asking him to run Homeland Security.
As White House chief of staff, Kelly, 67, is taking on what is arguably an even harder job then running DHS. He will surely try to bring a general’s discipline to a chaotic group of presidential advisers.
In the past six months the White House has lost not only its first chief of staff but also other key officials such as a national security adviser, a deputy national security adviser, a communications director, a deputy chief of staff, a press secretary, and a top Middle East adviser.
Kelly certainly has leadership qualities in great abundance. In person, in Aspen, he came across as a no-nonsense, doesn’t-tolerate-fools-gladly kind of leader who also treats his staff with respect and listens carefully to what they have to say.
He will need all of his experience and hard-won leadership skills to help correct course at the White House which suffered this past week what historians will surely mark as Trump’s single biggest failure hitherto: his inability to push through any kind of repeal of Obamacare.
Kelly has earned Trump’s admiration for his aggressive efforts to enforce immigration laws and his support for the travel ban from half a dozen Muslim-majority countries.
Illegal immigration is an issue with which Kelly is quite familiar as his last job in uniform was as the four star general in charge of Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) that is focused laser-like on Central and Latin America and protecting the southern border.
As DHS head, Kelly also deftly handled a significant threat to commercial aviation, which was the discovery in March that terrorists in the Middle East were manufacturing hard-to-detect bombs disguised in laptops.
DHS announced that eight Middle Eastern and African countries that have direct flights to the States could not allow passengers to carry on devices larger than a cellphone. By late July this ban had been lifted following the implementation of enhanced security procedures at airports in those eight countries.
Kelly also has the military credentials that Trump values as much as he does those who have made fortunes on Wall Street. The troika of Kelly, National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster and Secretary of Defense, retired four-star Marine Gen. Jim Mattis, now hold the key levers of American power. Kelly, Mattis and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Joseph Dunford, are also all Marines who have worked well together for decades.
The Kellys have also given much to the nation. In 2010 Kelly’s 29-year-old son Marine 1st Lt. Robert Kelly was killed by a landmine in Afghanistan. Kelly has another son who is an also Marine officer and a daughter who works for the FBI.