This past winter, when President Trump announced that John Kelly, the retired four-star general, was his pick to be Secretary of Homeland Security, immigrants and their advocates allowed themselves to feel momentarily hopeful. Perhaps the former military man would exert a moderating influence on Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda. In a previous job, as the head of the U.S. Southern Command, Kelly had spoken measuredly about the complex causes of mass migration in Central America. And as he prepared to take his position at D.H.S., which enforces federal immigration laws, he showed other signs of independence. He reportedly fought the Administration to prevent Kris Kobach, a Trump adviser and notorious hard-liner, from becoming his deputy. At his confirmation hearings, in January, he declared that Trump’s signature campaign proposal—a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border—“will not do the job.” But then, once he was installed as the head of D.H.S., Kelly made all the talk of moderation look naïve.
On Monday, Kelly was sworn in as the White House chief of staff, taking over for Reince Priebus. He leaves D.H.S. with a new reputation as one of the most aggressive enforcers of immigration law in recent American history. His record belies the short length of his tenure. In six months, Kelly eliminated guidelines that governed federal immigration agents’ work; vastly expanded the categories of immigrants being targeted for deportation; threatened to abandon the Obama-era program that grants legal status to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children; and has even broached the idea of splitting up mothers and children at the border to “deter” people from coming to the U.S. Under Kelly, immigration arrests in the U.S. increased by forty per cent and D.H.S became one of the few branches of the federal government that has been both willing and able to execute Trump’s policy priorities.
One of Kelly’s most revealing moments as D.H.S. secretary came in April, when he delivered a speech at George Washington University titled “Home and Away.” The remarks were a full-throated endorsement of the rank-and-file members of D.H.S. and its sub-agencies—most notably Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)—who were doing a job, as Kelly described it, that no one else had any right to criticize. “If lawmakers do not like the laws they’ve passed and we are charged to enforce—then they should have the courage and skill to change the laws,” he said. “Otherwise, they should shut up and support the men and women on the front lines. My people have been discouraged from doing their jobs for nearly a decade.” His tone was Trumpian, alternating between tough talk and personal grievance. “The men and women of my department have been political pawns,” he said. “Similar to the treatment suffered by law enforcement over the last few years, they are often ridiculed and insulted by public officials, and frequently convicted in the court of public opinion.” In his view, the work of his staff was an unqualified success: unauthorized border crossings were down since Trump took office. The agency’s harshness was paying off—migrants were getting the message. “Fewer people crossing the border illegally,” he said, “means our borders are secure and our people protected.”
Back when Kelly was starting at D.H.S., several former federal immigration officials predicted to me that he’d try to impose order and discipline at ICE and Customs and Border Protection, two agencies whose officers had a reputation for being unmanageable and resentful of outside authority. Many officers at both these agencies had been outspokenly opposed to President Barack Obama, who they felt was too lax in enforcing immigration laws, even as his Administration was deporting a record number of people. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens when Kelly realizes how resistant these guys are to top-down directives,” one former C.B.P. official told me in the spring. Such a confrontation never happened; instead, as evidenced by his speech at George Washington, Kelly vocally championed the rank and file.
At D.H.S, Kelly rejected the idea that the agency owed explanations to anyone, least of all to Trump’s critics on the Hill or in the press. In May, at a Coast Guard event, a microphone caught Kelly telling Trump, who was holding a ceremonial sword, that he should “use that on the press, sir.” Kelly has publicly defended Trump and his family on several occasions since taking office, often in noticeably personal terms. In testimony before Congress, Kelly said that Trump had shown real “wisdom” with his travel ban, while the critics were wasting their time “debating” the semantics of what it was called. In May, when news broke that during the transition Jared Kushner had tried to set up a backchannel line of communication with Russia, Kelly spoke on his behalf. “I don’t see any issue here relative to Jared,” he said, during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “I think any time you can open lines of communication with anyone, whether they’re good friends or not-so-good friends, is a smart thing to do.”
We’ll soon see how Kelly does in the White House. Already, some of the political predictions sound cautiously optimistic, just as they had when he took over at D.H.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut who’s been a loud critic of Trump, told CNN last week, “the kind of discipline that he is going to bring is important,” adding, “I hope that we’re at a turning point.” The abrupt departure of Anthony Scaramucci, the President’s communications director, is said to be a mark that Kelly has taken control of the White House. It’s not the first time Kelly has been seen as a potential check on Trump. But to believe that now is to ignore the past six months’ worth of evidence to the contrary.