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John Kelly Defends Vindman, Questions Trump's Actions On Many Issues


For roughly two years, Gen. John Kelly was the loyal soldier. The retired Marine Corps general came into the Trump administration as the secretary of Homeland Security. When he was cut out of the decision to implement the president's first travel ban, he stood by the president. As chief of staff at the White House, he tried to put systems in place to make sure President Trump was getting factual information to make key decisions, systems that President Trump continued to buck. Since leaving the White House, John Kelly has given relatively tame critiques of the administration. But this week, he took a stand in support of one of the witnesses in Trump's impeachment proceedings.

During remarks at Drew University Wednesday, Kelly said Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, quote, "did exactly what we teach them to do." Vindman, who until last week served on the National Security Council, raised concerns over the president's July 25 phone call with the Ukrainian leader. Peter Bergen is the author of the book "Trump And His Generals: The Cost Of Chaos." And he joins us now. Hi, Peter.


MARTIN: So what'd you make of Gen. Kelly's remarks this week defending Lt. Col. Vindman?

BERGEN: It was the most wide-ranging critique by any of the generals who serve for Trump, you know, that we've seen. And, in fact, it's probably the most wide-ranging critique of any former cabinet official in Trump's cabinet because not only did he defend, essentially, the impeachment proceeding, at least by implication. He also basically called out the North Korea nuclear kind of, you know, discussions we've been having with Kim Jong Un as essentially a waste of time and an obvious waste of time. He also defended the free media, which is always nice to hear - that we're not enemies of the people. And, you know, I think it was John Kelly unplugged.

MARTIN: Do you think it was - as we noted, he has - there have been drips and drabs of criticism from John Kelly over the past year since he's been out. But do you think it was the Lt. Col. Venkman situation - that this is a guy - he wears the uniform. John Kelly feels a connection to him, rightly so. Do you think that's what triggered all of this other critique?

BERGEN: You know, I don't know. I mean, clearly, this was probably a long-scheduled discussion at Drew University. He had a Q&A session. He was asked some direct questions about what was going on in the news, and he answered them. We haven't heard similar critiques of the president from Jim Mattis. He was on his book tour in September. He chose not to criticize a sitting president, said he was - he had an old-fashioned view. But, you know, John Kelly and Jim Mattis are very, very close. They went into Baghdad together, leading the 1st Marine Division in 2003. And this is - you know, I think John Kelly's put a bit of a marker out there.

MARTIN: Why - I know it's hard, and you can't get inside his head. But it is notable that he did not speak out in defense of Lt. Col. Vindman during the impeachment proceedings. I mean, he's been very careful about how he criticizes this president.

BERGEN: Well, Rachel, as you know, while having covered the Pentagon, I mean, you know, the more senior the retired military officer, the more reluctant they are to get engaged in politics and particularly criticizing a sitting president. And, you know, Jim Mattis has said almost nothing except by implication about Trump. H.R. McMaster has a book coming out relatively soon called Battlegrounds. And he will certainly be asked some direct questions on his book tour. You know, they're in a bit of a bind. Certainly, historically, you know, retired four-star officers, retired three-star officers were reluctant to take a political stand. But, you know, we live in a different time now.

MARTIN: After his election, President Trump surrounded himself, as you know, with several military men - Flynn, Mattis, McMaster. Not a single one remains in the job. What does that say?

BERGEN: You know, he's - he had a team of rivals who basically were able to challenge him. And now he has a team of acolytes who basically are going along for the ride.

MARTIN: Peter Bergen, author of the book "Trump And His Generals: The Cost Of Chaos." He's also a national security analyst with CNN and serves as the vice president of the think tank New America. We appreciate it, Peter. Thank you.

BERGEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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