WASHINGTON — Former White House chief of staff John Kelly said Friday that he did not agree with President Donald Trump’s threat to deploy active-duty U.S. military as the nation braced for another week of planned protests over the death of George Floyd.
“The troops hate it, they don’t see it as their job, they don’t want to be used in that way,” Kelly told Anthony Scaramucci, former White House communications director, during a livestreamed interview. “Now, natural disasters are a different story, hurricanes, earthquakes, we lean forward in the U.S. military to help,” he added, saying that the civil unrest in the United States are “domestic issues.”
Kelly, who also served as the secretary of Homeland Security in the Trump administration, reiterated the importance of preserving the Department of Defense’s apolitical nature.
“We have always attempted to be apolitical,” explained Kelly, a retired four-star Marine Corps general. “And we think that’s important because the U.S. military serves the nation, all of its people, not a party, not a political persuasion, not an individual.”
Kelly’s comments come as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper faces scrutiny for referring to American cities as a “battle space” and for participating in a widely criticized photo in front of a historic church.
“I think we need to look harder at who we elect and I think we should start, all of us, regardless of what our views are of politics, I think we should look at people running for office and put them through the filter, what is their character like, what are their ethics and if elected, are they willing to represent all of their constituents and not just their base,” Kelly said.
On Friday D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser asked for the withdrawal of “all extraordinary federal law enforcement and military presence” from the city as protests over Floyd’s death continued.
“The deployment of federal law enforcement personnel and equipment are inflaming demonstrators and adding to the grievances of those who, by and large, are peacefully protesting for change and reforms to the racist and broken systems that are killing Black Americans,” Bowser said in a letter to Trump.
Bowser also authorized the painting of the message “Black Lives Matter” in giant yellow letters down 16th Street in Washington, the site of many demonstrations.
‘I agree with Mattis’
U.S. President Donald Trump (C), White House chief of staff John Kelly (R) and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis attend a briefing with senior military leaders in the Cabinet Room of the White House October 5, 2017 in Washington, D.C.
Andrew Harrer | Pool | Getty Images
Kelly’s remarks come on the heels of a scathing statement from James Mattis, former secretary of Defense.
Mattis, who was Trump’s first Defense secretary, broke his near three-year silence and ripped into his former boss by saying, he “watched this week’s unfolding events, angry and appalled.”
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us,” Mattis wrote in a statement published by The Atlantic.
“We must reject any thinking of our cities as a ‘battlespace’ that our uniformed military is called upon to ‘dominate,'” Mattis explained.
“Militarizing our response, as we witnessed in Washington, D.C., sets up a conflict—a false conflict—between the military and civilian society. It erodes the moral ground that ensures a trusted bond between men and women in uniform and the society they are sworn to protect, and of which they themselves are a part.”
Police forces and National Guard vehicles are used to block 16th Street near Lafayette Park and the White House on June 3, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images
“I agree with Mattis,” Kelly said when asked about the statement made by his fellow Marine Corps general.
“The partisanship has gotten out of hand, the tribal thing has gotten out of hand, we don’t look at each other as fellow Americans it seems anymore we look at each other as opponents, we don’t talk to each other anymore, we yell at each other,” Kelly said.
Mattis also took issue with a Monday night incident in which protesters were forcibly cleared from Lafayette Square, a small park in front of the president’s residence.
“The words ‘Equal Justice Under Law’ are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind,” Mattis wrote.
Trump walked through the square with several members of his Cabinet to stand in front of St. John’s Church while holding a Bible and posing for photographs. He later motioned to members of his Cabinet to join him for more pictures.
President Donald Trump walks with US Attorney General William Barr (L), US Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper (C), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley (R), and others from the White House to visit St. John’s Church after the area was cleared of people protesting the death of George Floyd June 1, 2020, in Washington, DC.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP via Getty Images
Esper, who has previously said he would preserve the U.S. military’s apolitical nature, entered the frame and stood alongside Trump for the photo op.
In a Tuesday night interview with NBC News, Esper said, “I didn’t know where I was going” when asked about the highly criticized photo opportunity. “I thought I was going to do two things: to see some damage and to talk to the troops.”
When asked about the incident, Kelly said he would have advised the president to not follow through with the planned photo.
“I would have recommended against it,” he said.
Correction: John Kelly is a retired four-star Marine Corps general. An earlier version misstated his status.