Against protest backdrop, former Trump Chief of Staff John Kelly talks immigration, climate change and free press

Former White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly speaks at the Drew Forum, at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, Feb. 12, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The press is not the enemy of the people. Climate change is real. Most migrants attempting to cross the southwest border are good people.

That’s according to President Trump’s former chief of staff, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly. He addressed about 300 people on Wednesday inside Morristown’s Mayo Performing Arts Center, as part of the Drew Forum lecture series.

Demonstrators outside Morristown talk by former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Feb. 12, 2020. Photo by Bill Lescohier

Outside, about 50 demonstrators from the Drew Theological School and the Wind of the Spirit Immigrant Resource Center stood in a chilly drizzle.

Chanting, waving signs and reciting Biblical passages, they condemned Kelly’s immigration policies and denounced Drew University for providing a platform for him.

Twice, activists disrupted Kelly’s talk.

“It’s immoral to separate families! Separating families is not a deterrent!” they shouted, as security people escorted them from the 1,300-seat theater.

Two other speakers were booed for making long statements during a question-and-answer session. More slogans were shouted near the stage as the 75-minute forum concluded.

None of this appeared to rattle Kelly, 69, who knows something about chaos after serving a tour of duty in the Trump White House.

Calmly, he touched on a range of topics from his four decades in the military and tumultuous stints as Trump’s Homeland Security secretary and chief of staff.

Former White House Chief of Staff Gen. John Kelly fields a question at the Drew Forum, at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, Feb. 12, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Strategically placed border walls, he said, would help solve a “crisis” that includes an influx of drugs, and of migrant children sent by their parents.

Migrants are “overwhelmingly, good people” seeking better lives, Kelly said.

“They’re not all rapists and murderers. It’s wrong to characterize them that way… But they are crossing illegally.”

Kelly said he resisted White House attempts to make separation of migrant families a government policy.

Sarah Gallo protests outside Morristown talk by former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Feb. 12, 2020. Photo by Bill Lescohier

Separations stemmed from a “zero tolerance policy” by the Justice Department in the spring of 2018, he said. Pressured by the president, the DOJ began arresting parents and guardians suspected of unlawful entrance to the country.

Children can’t go to jail with adults, so they were placed in shelters–a “fiasco” because the departments of Homeland Security and Human Services had no advance warning, Kelly said.

“It should not have happened,” he said.

Other migrant children are separated by their parents, who send them to the border knowing the U.S. will strive to place the youths in foster homes, he said.

“They’re taken into protective custody, they’re cleaned up, they’re given medical attention, they go to school… they’re very well taken care of,” Kelly said of these youths.

President Trump’s early ban on Muslim immigrants also caught Homeland Security by surprise, Kelly said. “I worked to get the White House to do away with it,” he said.

After leaving the administration, Kelly joined the board of the operator of the nation’s largest detention centers for migrant children. He did not discuss that controversial move during the talk.


While not directly criticizing the president, Kelly told the audience he had predicted Trump would be impeached without someone like himself to offer different viewpoints. He expressed regret at leaving the White House in January 2019.

Demonstrators outside Morristown talk by former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Feb. 12, 2020. Photo by Bill Lescohier

Kelly said Army Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman, the Ukraine expert on the National Security Council who testified in the House impeachment hearing, followed his military training by notifying a superior last year of concerns about Trump’s call to the Ukrainian president seeking dirt on Joe Biden.

“We teach them to always tell the truth, to tell truth to power,” Kelly said. Vindman, who has been reassigned, may be disciplined by the Pentagon, Trump tweeted this week.

Responding to another audience question, Kelly took exception to Trump’s pardon of Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher, who was convicted of war crimes in Iraq.

Gallagher “was not a guy who represents our military in any way, shape or form. The military legal justice system worked, he was found guilty of certain things. He should have been ashamed of himself, and he should have been sent home.

Demonstrator outside Morristown talk by former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Feb. 12, 2020. Photo by Bill Lescohier

“So the idea that the commander-in-chief intervened there, in my opinion, was exactly the wrong thing to do,” Kelly said, to applause from the crowd.

Citing George Washington’s example as president, Kelly suggested term limits for members of Congress. He decried the political polarization he blames for gridlock on health care, infrastructure and climate change.

“We need to be very, very careful about who we send up there,” said the Boston native, who shunned health deferments to enlist in the Marines during the Vietnam War.

Voters, Kelly said, should size up a candidate’s character before assessing policies. “Their integrity, ethics, morality. Are they up there to represent all of us, not just the people who voted for them?”

For this, “we need a free media, desperately.” Citizens won’t make informed choices if they rely solely on Fox News or MSNBC, he added.

Sizing up the world scene, Kelly said the U.S. must “wake up” to prevent China from becoming the global economic leader.

Russia, with a smaller economy than Italy and a society plagued by alcohol and drugs, poses the greatest military risk. Vladimir Putin dreams of restoring Soviet glory, he said.

Demonstrator outside Morristown talk by former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, Feb. 12, 2020. Photo by Bill Lescohier

Iran’s regime is capable of creating a nuclear weapon, while North Korea’s Kim Jong-un never will relinquish his nukes. Trump tried to persuade him, but the North Korean dictator “played us,” Kelly said.

The general praised the Kurds for helping defeat ISIS, and said it’s a mistake to disengage U.S. forces from the Middle East and other trouble spots, where we can keep terrorists “off-balance.”

Kelly predicted the war on terror will continue for decades. Since 9/11, he said, Homeland Security and other agencies have thwarted more than 100 terrorism plots, including bombings of jetliners over the Atlantic and Pacific.


The protests were peaceful, with no arrests, said Morristown Police Lt. Stuart Greer.

Introducing Kelly, Drew President MaryAnn Baenninger acknowledged the activists outside. Exposing “our students to civil conversation from a wide spectrum of views” is part of an “excellent education,” she said.

Drew President MaryAnn Baenninger introduces Ge. John Kelly, Feb. 12, 2020. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Theology student Christopher Dwyer said he was demonstrating “against a school that speaks “‘resist’ with its lips, and invites John Kelly with it money.”

Kelly does not deserve “a redemptive arc,” Dwyer insisted.

“We’re not going to stand for people like Kelly who have profited from the separation of families, or from xenophobic policies such as the Muslim ban,” Brian Lozano of Wind of the Spirit said, from a police-designated protest area across South Street from the theater entrance.

Sam Turvey, a lawyer from Madison, cut Kelly a little more slack.

“I’m sure I don’t agree with him on a lot of things,” Turvey said after the lecture. “But he did leave the (Trump) administration. More people should do that.”

If you’ve read this far… you clearly value your local news. Now we need your help to keep producing the local coverage you depend on! More people are reading Morristown Green than ever. But costs keep rising. Reporting the news takes time, money and hard work. We do it because we, like you, believe an informed citizenry is vital to a healthy community.

So please, CONTRIBUTE to MG or become a monthly SUBSCRIBER. ADVERTISE on Morristown Green. LIKE us on Facebook, FOLLOW us on Twitter, and SIGN UP for our newsletter.

[interactive_copyright_notice float='left']
[icopyright_horizontal_toolbar float='right']


  1. Yeah but it’s very Christian to lie. There’s no such thing as a good concentration camp. Yes, that’s what it is. Kids been abused in all senses and taken apart from their parents. To make money out of the tragedy of other human beings is definitely not what Jesus was preaching about!

  2. He’s also a ‘gold star’ father and we have been told repeatedly that ‘gold star’ parents cannot be criticized.

  3. Sad that theology students will not give a “redemptive arc” to a career public servant who tried to bring a saner focus to the unfocused, uncontemplated, and dangerous actions of the Trump administration. If they are so very concerned that families not be separated, have they been working to make sure that homeless families in their community are able to remain together rather than going to different shelters? Sounds like John Kelly has worked to ameliorate a difficult situation. Protesting this man who left the administration and is willing to speak truthfully about it does not feel very Christian to me.