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Ex-White House Chief Of Staff Talks Ukraine, Calls Bolton A 'Stand-Up Guy' In Sarasota

Close-up photo of man wearing hat, speaking.
Robert Pope
The Ringling College Library Association’s Town Hall Lecture Series opened its 2020 season in Sarasota on Monday with General John Kelly. Credit Robert Pope";

The first thing former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly addressed in Sarasota was the hat. It's unusual to see the retired Marine general wearing a baseball cap as he did on stage at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, but as he told the audience, he recently had a run-in involving a chainsaw and a tree in his backyard.

Kelly spoke on a wide range of topics Monday as part of the Ringling College Library Association’s Town Hall Lecture Series.

In his remarks, Kelly said the U.S. will be fighting terrorism for generations, that money involved in U.S. elections is bad for democracy, and that President Trump is strong on trade with China.

In a press conference before the event, Kelly also weighed in on John Bolton and a leaked manuscript which ties President Trump to withholding aid to Ukraine.

"I know John and I worked with John,” said Kelly. “Whether you love the guy or not love the guy, he's an honest guy with a lot of character and intense love of our country. You may disagree with his politics, but John is a stand-up guy."

The issue of impeachment and aid to Ukraine also came up in the Q&A portion of the lecture. When the moderator asked Kelly if the aid should have been held up, a small but vocal contingent jeered the question.

Kelly answered that if a country is being threatened by an aggressor like Russia, aid should be sent as fast as it can.

Woman and man shake hands next to an illustration.
Credit Robert Pope
In a ceremony before the lecture, Kelly was presented with an illustration created by Oliver Stephenson of Lakeland, a sophomore at Ringling College of Art & Design. Credit Robert Pope

During the press conference, the former Marine addressed President Trump's recent remarks that some say minimized injuries suffered by American troops.

Pentagon officials say some soldiers were diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, or TBI, after an Iranian missile attack earlier this month.

The President referred to the effects as "headaches."

"TBI is an injury,” said Kelly. “The President said that, and that's unfortunate. I would have hoped if I had been there, we would have had a discussion about what TBI is. I hope he understands now that this is a real injury."

Kelly left the White House Chief of Staff position in January of 2019, a job he held for 16 months. Previously he served as the Trump administration’s Secretary of Homeland Security.

Kelly made a case for rigorous enforcement of the country’s immigration laws but says the decision to arrest, rather than detain migrants at the southern border, is “not a good policy.” He did not address his role as a board member of Caliburn International, which operates detention center for unaccompanied minor children.   

Before his speaking event, Kelly also fielded questions from students. One asked about how the country can heal the partisan divide.

“We need to have more veterans in Congress, and on both sides of the aisle,” he said. “Veterans have a different view of America and of Americans. I watch them on Capitol Hill making points, political points in the debates, but two veterans never attack each other because that's not the business of government. They may totally disagree, yet not make it personal and not turn it into the tribal politics that exist up there today.”

Man at podium speaks
Credit Robert Pope
“We need to have more veterans in Congress, and on both sides of the aisle,” Kelly said during his lecture in Sarasota. Credit Robert Pope

Kelly also admitted that his days working in the White House with Trump were hard.

“He comes from an organization where he could tell people what to do and he did not have a separation of powers like he has in the U.S. government,” Kelly said of President Trump.

“The U.S. government is designed by the founders to be very slow moving. I'm not a presidential historian, but I know from my own readings that it drives every President crazy, at least initially, because they come in and they want to get going and then they have people like me and others saying, you know, 'Mr. President, the lawyers tell me you don't have the authority to do that.'

“But every administration that comes in has that same frustrating reaction. Frankly, as an American citizen, I can tell you it's a good thing to have three separate but equal parts of our government. If you don't have that, then have clearly it's not a democracy anymore.”

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.
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