Following a rocky six-month tenure as the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus quietly resigned last Thursday, the same day that an explosive New Yorker interview revealed that former communications director Anthony Scaramucci had called Priebus "a fucking paranoid schizophrenic" and a leaker.
President Donald Trump announced on Friday that Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security John Kelly would take over as chief of staff. Today will be Kelly's last day leading the department; tomorrow Deputy Secretary Elaine Duke will take the lead at the DHS until the Senate can confirm a permanent replacement.
When he was appointed secretary of the DHS, Kelly, a retired four-star Marine general who completed three tours in Iraq, and lost a son in Afghanistan, became the first non-civilian to head the department since it was created in 2001. Kelly was an ideal pick for Trump, a president who prioritizes immigration and border security: Kelly led the Southern Command, supervising the United States military presence across 32 countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America, from 2012 to 2016. Like Trump, he has long claimed that the U.S. is underestimating the threat from below our southern border.
In congressional testimony in 2015, Kelly claimed that terrorist organizations could take advantage of smuggling routes that ferried Latin American refugees and drugs into the U.S. (The criminal networks that control these routes "could unwittingly, or even wittingly, facilitate the movement of terrorist operatives or weapons of mass destruction toward our borders," he noted.) Kelly also said that Russia and China were increasing both investments and "presence" in Latin America in order to undermine U.S. partnerships and influence in the region.
Nevertheless, unlike our current commander-in-chief, Kelly does not think a border wall is the solution: "No wall will work by itself," he told Foreign Policy last year. Indeed, while he was leading the DHS, Democrats had even hoped that he would temper Trump's hardline approach to immigration. Instead, he embraced and imposed Trump's policies with what Politico called "military rigor."
Under Kelly, the notoriously dysfunctional DHS has become one of the only productive departments of the Trump administration. In just six months on the job, Kelly ended the Obama-era policy of primarily deporting immigrants who committed serious crimes, and directed the department in a February memo to target all undocumented immigrants. He also called for an expansion of the federal 287(g) program that authorizes state and local law enforcement to identify and arrest undocumented immigrants. (The program had been curtailed under the Obama administration amid concerns that it encouraged racial profiling.) Additionally, Kelly dismantled an expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which would have allowed parents of undocumented DREAMers or green card holders temporary protection from deportation. And he has supported a proposed policy to prosecute parents who pay to have their children smuggled across the border to reunite their families—a hardline measure the U.S. government has never taken before.
Unsurprisingly, Trump has been pleased with Kelly's leadership at the DHS, calling the general a "true star of my Administration." But while Kelly inarguably has serious military and foreign policy chops, and his experience at Southern Command prepared him to lead Trump's DHS (a source close to the general once said that he has "better relationships in Latin America than the State Department does"), heading the agency was his first foray into civilian bureaucracy. Some of Trump's top advisors have questioned whether Kelly, who has famously called domestic politics a "cesspool," has the administrative and political skills for the position as chief of staff, according to the New York Times. But perhaps Trump hopes that the general will be able to bring some military-grade discipline to his chaotic White House.