Did John Kelly break with Trump on the border wall?

Maybe, although the differences seem more nuanced than initial reports credit. Politico and other outlets headline a remark yesterday from former chief of staff John Kelly that referred to a “waste of money” when discussing the border wall at Duke University. However, the details make clear that Kelly meant that criticism in one specific context:

Kelly rebuked one of the president’s constant refrains about undocumented immigrants: That migrants who cross into the U.S. illegally are dangerous criminals and pose a serious threat.

“They’re overwhelmingly not criminals,” Kelly said Wednesday. “They’re people coming up here for economic purposes. I don’t blame them for that.”

He also reiterated his position that a border wall spanning the entire U.S.-Mexico border would be a “waste of money,” despite overseeing the beginning of what would become the longest government shutdown in U.S. history over Trump’s demand that Congress fund such a project.

Though there are areas where a border wall would be effective, Kelly said, “We don’t need a wall from sea to shining sea.”

That may be a fair criticism of Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, but it’s not what the administration has proposed recently. It certainly wasn’t what Kelly’s former boss demanded in the shutdown when holding out for $5 billion in extra funding. That would have only funded around 300 miles of border barriers, a long way from 2000 miles described in that comment. Trump might still want a 2,000-mile wall, but he’s not asking for one — he’s asking for the barrier system CBP says it needs.

That wasn’t the only nuance, either. In other remarks picked up by CBS, Kelly also didn’t oppose Trump’s emergency declaration, which seems odd for someone who supposedly thinks the border wall is an entire waste of money. Kelly also questioned why Democrats had reversed themselves on funding the project and suggested it was out of partisan spite:

Kelly also wouldn’t say if he fully supported Mr. Trump’s national emergency declaration, explaining, “So long as [the declaration is] legal and within the authority of the president, you do it.” He went on to say that he believed the national emergency issue would be “wrapped up in the courts” as it continues to face mounting legal challenges.

Kelly said, however, that the larger issue of the border “gets into the alienation and lack of bipartisanship that we seem to be crippled with.” Kelly noted that in the past some Democrats had signed onto the idea of expanding physical barriers along the southern border in the early 2000s.

Kelly suggested he might have been able to teach both sides a thing or two about bipartisanship. Kelly, who once described the White House chief of staff position as a “bone-crushing job,” said that he had no regrets about filling the role as a service to his country — and that he would likely have done it for Hillary Clinton, had she won and offered the position:

Kelly said he has no regrets from his time in service to President Trump but also said that, had Hillary Clinton won the election and asked to serve in her administration, he likely would have also said yes.

“If I’d gotten called, if Hillary Clinton had won and she had called me and said I really need a good chief of staff here, I would have probably would have done it … politics aside, it’s about governing the country,” Kelly said, “Love them or hate them, whoever that happens to be, it’s our responsibility to help them.”

Getting back to immigration policy, Kelly defended Trump on the family separation issue. He claimed that former Attorney General Jeff Sessions blindsided the White House on enforcement policies, although ABC called shenanigans on the claim:

[Kelly] placed blame on former Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the family separations that resulted from the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy. He said the policy was implemented by Sessions and caught other government agencies off guard, leaving them reeling as they sought to respond and catch up.

But Kelly’s comments contradict his own arguments on behalf of the separation policy in the days after it was announced by Sessions, in which he argued it could be an effective deterrent to stem the flow of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border. “It could be a tough deterrent — would be a tough deterrent,” Kelly said in a May 2018 interview with NPR. “A much faster turnaround on asylum seekers.” …

Asked in his 2018 NPR interview specifically about whether it would be cruel to separate children from their parents, Kelly answered, “I wouldn’t put it quite that way.”

“The children will be taken care of — put into foster care or whatever,” he said. “But the big point is they elected to come illegally into the United States and this is a technique that no one hopes will be used extensively or for very long.”

That didn’t pan out too well in the end, which is why Kelly might want to remember the project as Jeff Sessions’ FUBAR. Taken in full context, though, it’s clear that Kelly’s not on tour as the newest member of La Résistance or even opposed to the border wall on an appropriate scale. His eventual memoirs might give us more insight on those questions, but for now Kelly seems more interested in promoting a calmer kind of politics … which still might seem transgressive in this era.