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Gen. John F. Kelly speaks at SJV Town Hall about drug epidemic, time in White House


Former four-star general shares perspective on today’s issues

[/media-credit] In addition to 45 years of military service, General John F. Kelly worked in the White House for two years.

General John F. Kelly of the United States Marine Corps (retired) spoke at the latest SJV Town Hall, Jan. 16. Kelly shared from his experience of 45 years of military service and two years in the White House.

Kelly enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1970 amidst the Vietnam War, and in 2012 became the 64th four-star general in Marine Corps history. He retired from the military in 2016, after serving as Commander, US Southern Command.

Just months after retiring, Kelly was contacted by then President-elect Donald Trump to serve as Secretary of Homeland Security. Before the election, Kelly had not heard of Trump, and had no desire to involve himself in politics. Kelly says he chose to serve by governance rather than politics during his time at the White House.

“My belief is, to my core, that once the elections are over, the real business of America takes over, and that is governance” Kelly said. “I think an awful lot of people that are running for office don’t quite understand that the election is supposed to end when you take office, and then you’re supposed to actually take care of Americans.”

We’ve come to a point in American society in politics where I think we really need to step back and decide that the kind of way we conduct campaigns these days is counter-productive to what we’re really trying to achieve. — Gen. John Kelly

After serving for six months as DHS Secretary, President Trump selected Kelly as his second White House Chief of Staff. Kelly was charged with bringing organization and discipline to the 2,000 employees working in the White House, balancing the President’s schedule and enacting Trump’s decisions and curating the information coming to the Oval Office. Of his many roles, Kelly says that keeping the President informed to the best of his ability was one of the most important.

“I think the truth is one of the most important things in our country, in our relationships with each other, and certainly in our government,” Kelly said. “The president of the United States, whether it’s Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George Washington, [must be] served by people that come to him and tell him the truth; ‘Mr. President, you usually have a lot of good ideas, this isn’t one of them,’ or ‘Mr. President if we do that, a part of our American society is going to get hurt,’ or ‘Mr. President, if we do that, this will lead on a road we don’t want to embark on.’”

Bryce Foshee interviews General John F. Kelly in the following podcast.

During his 18 months as Chief of Staff, Kelly advised President Trump on many of the issues that have come to define the public discourse today.


[/media-credit] From 2012 to 2016, General John F. Kelly led all US forces in Central and Southern America as Commander, US Southern Command.

Even before coming to the White House as DHS Secretary, Kelly experienced first-hand the problems facing the Southern hemisphere and our own Southern border. He says solutions will come from dealing with the issues at their root causes.

“We have to do something about our Southwest border,” Kelly said. “I don’t mean build a wall, I don’t mean do bad things, I mean working with the countries to our south in a meaningful way. To help them deal with their problems will do an awful lot to relieve the problems on our southwest border.”

One of the most controversial stories during Trump’s presidency has been the treatment of minors at the border. Kelly explained the origins of the controversy.

“The Attorney General, after about two years of the President [asking], and believe me there were many of us who argued against this, [ordered] that the parents were arrested,” Kelly said, “and then by law, the children can’t go to jail with the parents, and so the children had to go to these shelters.”

“All of the activities that are being done on the Southwest border are being done because the United States Congress passed laws,” Kelly continued. “When I was in DHS, when I would be asked questions [about child-separation] by members of Congress, I would say, ‘Change the law. I’m with you, a lot of these things need to be updated. Get off your fannies and change the law.’”

Though frustrated with Congress’s squeamishness towards immigration, Kelly believes the US can find solutions even if the legislative branch refuse to act. One of his ideas is to invest in the Latin American countries many migrants are fleeing from.

“There are ways to fix our immigration problems on the border,” Kelly said. “They’re coming up here for economic opportunity. The best thing we can do is to find ways to keep them home by giving them economic opportunity in Guatemala, in Honduras, in El Salvador.”


[/media-credit] General John F. Kelly speaks about solving the drug addiction epidemic in America. He blames many of the problems in South America on US drug demand.

As Commander of the US Southern Command, Kelly observed the devastating effect America’s drug demand has on Latin and South America. However, long before he became a general, Kelly lived a community dragged down by drug addiction.

“I grew up as a kid in Boston,” Kelly said. “It was a drug-infested, crime infested community. Many of my friends never made it past 20 years old, a lot of them died of drug overdose.”

A 2017 study conducted by the US Department of Health and Human Services estimated that 11.2% of the US population age 12 and older uses illicit drugs. American demand is so high that Mexican and South American cartels rake in billion-dollar profits every year. Kelly says the first step to solving our drug problem might be realizing the devastating effect it leaves on our neighbors.

“Our drug addiction has resulted in unbelievable profits to the drug cartels,” Kelly said. “They can buy influence or they can kill people, and they do both every single day. We should look in the mirror and acknowledge the fact that it’s our drug use that fuels the unbelievable profits that to a large degree has caused Mexico, Guatemala, places like that to suffer terribly.”

Foreign Policy

Throughout his military service, Gen. Kelly travelled to a majority of the world’s nations; he estimates 140 countries. Kelly remains convinced that the US must not adopt an isolationist policy, lest history repeat itself.

“Fairly recently, and I think this is a mistake, people in Washington have thought that we shouldn’t get involved in these wars,” Kelly said. “The fact of the matter is, if we don’t help countries come to settle disagreements pre-war or if war breaks out to get involved, no one else can do it. No one else has the moral and spiritual influence the United States has. And at the end of the day, no one has a military that is entirely designed to deter war, not to actively go after war.”

No one else has the moral and spiritual influence the United States has. And at the end of the day, no one has a military that is entirely designed to deter war, not to actively go after war. — Gen. John Kelly

Kelly believes part of America’s role on the world stage is to contain oppressive regimes. He supports President Trump’s efforts to deny nuclear weapons to Iran.

“They [Iranians] have no rights, there’s no free press, there’s no free internet. You can break a demonstration up pretty quick when you start shooting people. It’s not anything other than a malign influence. Countries like that, lead by regimes like that, should be contained diplomatically as well as if need be militarily. The last thing this world needs is a maligned regime like the Iranians, with the way the radicals look at life, with nuclear weapons and the ability to deliver them.”

The recent killing of Iranian general Qassim Suleimani by US forces re-escalated tensions in the Middle East. Kelly questions the timing, but not the motive, behind the drone strike.

“This guy Suleimani was frankly a brilliant organizer and manager of world-wide terrorist operations for Iran,” Kelly said. “They have cells around the world, in Latin America, Middle East, Africa, Asia. So on one hand, and I’m not criticising, I don’t know why they took him out right now. But the world is a better place that he’s not here anymore.”

The Big Picture

[/media-credit] Bryce Foshee interviews Gen. John Kelly about America’s global influence.

Though Kelly recognizes internal and external issues facing our nation, Kelly maintains his faith in the American experiment.

“I’ve been to 140 countries, some of them multiple times, and I have never found a country better than ours,” Kelly said. “And with the exception of very, very few countries, the vast majority of the population on the planet wants to come here. Because our country is better than anywhere else.”

Kelly closed his speech with what he believes is the ultimate solution to the large and small problems of today: service.

“If you don’t coach little league, if you’re not involved with boy scouts or girl scouts, if you’re not involved with charitable things that your church does,” Kelly said, “than you ought to get involved, because it is good for America. At the end of the day, the solution is here in Fresno. It is not in Washington, D.C. It’s here in your communities.”

For more about the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall series, read Free Solo director, photographer, Jimmy Chin speaks at SJV Town Hall and Former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard speaks at SJV Town Hall.

Bryce Foshee can be reached via Twitter @brycer_f and via email.

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    Shirley ZhaoFeb 7, 2020 at 8:12 am

    This is a good article.Good job Bryce.

  • S

    Sarah SmithFeb 4, 2020 at 10:56 am

    Amazing article Bryce!