What attracted Team Trump to retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly for a Cabinet post was a dissertation on the southern border he delivered to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015.
Gen. Kelly’s supporters told The Washington Times that his hawkish testimony caught the eye of Donald Trump’s key adviser, Steve Bannon, and won him an audience Nov. 19 with the president-elect at his New Jersey country club.
“In my opinion, the relative ease with which human smugglers moved tens of thousands of people to our nation’s doorstep also serves as another warning sign: These smuggling routes are a potential vulnerability to our homeland,” Gen. Kelly told the Senate committee.
President Obama’s aides at the time frowned on his testimony depicting the porous border as a threat to the nation.
Gen. Kelly has been endorsed by fellow retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, who is in the mix for defense secretary. Gen. Kelly reciprocated by plugging Gen. Mattis, supporters say.
Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff who telephoned Gen. Kelly to set up the New Jersey meeting, said Sunday on “Meet the Press” that Gen. Kelly is under consideration for secretary of state, in addition to 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.
A Kelly supporter said the retired four-star general is also being considered to lead the Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for guarding the leaky southern border with Mexico. Mr. Trump has vowed to build a wall along the border and stop the chaotic movement of deported criminals, drug traffickers, and masses of youths and adults fleeing violence in Central America.
Mr. Trump’s evaluation of Gen. Kelly not so much for his distinguished war record but for his knowledge of border issues and Southern Hemisphere governments shows a priority on enacting immigration policies during his first 100 days in office.
If Gen. Kelly and Gen. Mattis win Cabinet posts, it would create a unique Marine Corps triumvirate, as Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford is now chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking U.S. military officer.
Gen. Kelly retired from his final post as commander of Florida-based U.S. Southern Command. It has a lower priority among the nation’s combatant commands than those in the Middle East, which is fighting the Islamic State terrorist group, and in the Pacific, which checks Chinese expansion.
His missions included the border with Mexico, counternarcotics trafficking and counterinsurgency, and the portfolio allowed him regular meetings with Central and South American leaders, relationships that could dampen the immigration crisis’ root cause of so many wanting to enter the U.S. illegally.
His 2015 testimony placed the border issue as not just a socioeconomic problem but as a national security one, saying the same criminals who smuggle unescorted children and adults across the border would be willing to shepherd Islamist terrorists and/or weapons of mass destruction.
“These networks could unwittingly, or even wittingly, facilitate the movement of terrorist operatives or weapons of mass destruction toward our borders, potentially undetected and almost completely unrestricted,” he said.
“In addition to thousands of Central Americans fleeing poverty and violence, foreign nationals from countries like Somalia, Bangladesh, Lebanon and Pakistan are using the region’s human smuggling networks to enter the United States.”
He also warned about the activities of Lebanese Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization sponsored by Iran.
“The terrorist group Lebanese Hezbollah, which has long viewed the region as a potential attack venue against Israeli or other Western targets, has supporters and sympathizers in Lebanese diaspora communities in Latin America, some of whom are involved in lucrative illicit activities like money laundering and trafficking in counterfeit goods and drugs,” he said.
“Addressing the root causes of insecurity and instability is not just in the region’s interests, but ours,” he testified.
He said SouthCom’s low priority has translated into meager intelligence assets.
“U.S. Southern Command has accepted risk for so long in this region that we now face a near-total lack of awareness of threats and the readiness to respond, should those threats reach crisis levels,” he testified.
As SouthCom boss, Gen. Kelly actively promoted the Alliance for Prosperity to promote economic change and countersmuggling policies in Northern Triangle countries Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. Mr. Obama’s budget in 2016 contained $1 billion for Central American aid.
A Kelly supporter said the general focused on human rights, to which ends he regularly met with the Red Cross and required his subordinates to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
A Kelly supporter told The Times, “No one knows that border and the key players better than Kelly.”
At retirement in 2015 after three years at SouthCom, Gen. Kelly was the armed forces’ longest-serving general. He joined as a private in 1970 and, after college, re-entered the Marines in 1976 as an officer.
As assistant division commander, he fought in the Iraq War. In 2004-07, he was the Marines’ top link to Congress. He then took control of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and returned to fighting in Iraq’s Anbar province.
Just like he bucked the Obama administration on his Senate testimony, he went against his own commandant and testified on behalf of a Marine officer who was disciplined in the infamous urination photo over Taliban corpses. Gen. Kelly believed the officer was unfairly singled out for punishment.
Gen. Kelly is a Gold Star father. His son, Marine 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2010.
In 2014, four years after his son’s death, The Washington Times reported on a private speech that the general delivered on American patriotism and how millennial Marines are different from their civilian counterparts.
The speech today seems prescient given upheavals in the past year by millennials on college campuses and their demands for “safe spaces” and censorship.
“The young people I work with every day and serve the nation in the armed forces, in general, and the Marine Corps in particular, have broken the mold and stepped out as men and women of character who are making their own way in life while protecting ours,” he said. “Young people who, like their fathers and grandfathers before them, have a religious faith in self-reliance, hard work and making it on their own. This is who they are, and it is this philosophy that came to them through their families.”
“If you think this war against our way of life is over because some of the self-appointed opinion-makers and chattering class grow ‘war weary,’ because they want to be out of Iraq or Afghanistan, you are mistaken,” Gen. Kelly said. “This enemy is dedicated to our destruction. He will fight us for generations, and the conflict will move through various phases as it has since 9/11.”