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Where New WH Chief Of Staff John Kelly May Take White House Policy


We're going to learn more now about the new White House chief of staff. He's the first career military man to have that job in 40 years. Retired Marine Corps General John Kelly started off yesterday by firing the director of communications, Anthony Scaramucci. And President Trump has high expectations.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I predict that General Kelly will go down, in terms of the position of chief of staff, one of the great ever.

CORNISH: Joining us now to talk about John Kelly is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Welcome to the studio, Tom.


CORNISH: And you've reported on Kelly for many years. So what sort of a management style does he bring to the White House?

BOWMAN: Well, John Kelly's very decisive and aggressive. He makes sure everyone's doing what they should be doing. And already we're hearing that everyone will report to General Kelly in the White House staff. Now, clearly he thought Anthony Scaramucci was not up to the job and quickly canned him. And it reminded me of an incident early in the Iraq War when Kelly had a big role in firing a Marine colonel he felt wasn't aggressive enough pushing through a city on the drive to Baghdad.

Now, in homeland security, Kelly was blindsided by the president's first attempt at a travel ban, which is of course blocked by the courts. I understand that Kelly made it clear to everyone that there is a process that must be followed. You can't just toss out an executive order and not tell anyone, then cause chaos at all the airports - you'll remember. And so I think what he'll bring is that strong approach of following a process. I don't think you'll see anyone at the White House doing end runs around John Kelly.

CORNISH: This also means more military in this administration, right? He's the fourth general the president has named to a senior post in this administration. There was Michael Flynn. He's now gone of course - but also Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster and now Kelly. So what's going on there?

BOWMAN: Well, it's quite clear that Trump is enamored with the military, especially generals. He feels comfortable around them. He likes to be seen at military bases and aircraft carriers. But this all raises questions once again, as it did earlier this year. Are there too many generals making policy? Will they have an oversized influence? Will they be partial to military solutions and crowd out other options?

CORNISH: And this is a question of course because Kelly would be playing a big role in presenting policy options to the president - right...

BOWMAN: That's right.

CORNISH: ...As gatekeeper to this door. What do we know, for example, about how he thinks about, say, Afghanistan?

BOWMAN: Well, when he retired last year from the Marine Corps, his last job was head of Southern Command. And he was asked about Afghanistan in his last press conference, about terrorism. And he said what many other military leaders have said - that you have to prevent terrorists from having safe havens. Here's what he said.


JOHN KELLY: I don't believe we should - we can afford to let them have a safe haven. This is hard. This is really hard. And we know how to do it, but it generally translate to more expensive and longer-term than what was maybe the nation hopes for.

BOWMAN: So more expensive and longer-term - clearly that's what you have in Afghanistan. So will he want to ramp up troops to Afghanistan or just maybe try backing out?

CORNISH: Does this help with domestic policy, right? He's got to deal with Congress.

BOWMAN: Well, he does have to deal with Congress, and he does experience in the Marine Corps. And a couple of times he was a liaison to Capitol Hill. So clearly he has experience on the Hill and a lot of close ties on the Hill.

CORNISH: Now, we do know there are big divisions among Trump's advisers. And some of the civilians are pushing to, say, on the issue of Afghanistan, disengage. Some are asking for - on the military side, to ask for more troops. What will you be watching for?

BOWMAN: Well, that debate does continue in, what will Kelly's role be? Will he merely present the options and the arguments to the president? Will he favor one argument over another? And it's worth noting that General Kelly once worked for General Mattis in Iraq. He was his deputy during the Iraq War. And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joe Dunford, was with him as well in Iraq and is one of his closest friends.

So the big question going forward as, you know, we look at Iraq - Afghan policy, rather - is, will he side with the military and urge sending more troops there, or will he side with the civilians and say maybe it's time to look at other options? We just don't know at this point.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Tom Bowman on the new White House chief of staff, John Kelly. Tom, thank you.

BOWMAN: You're welcome

(SOUNDBITE OF TEA LEAF GREEN'S "ASPHALT FUNK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
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