In Aspen, John Kelly recalled how Reince Priebus checked his interest in Homeland Security post | AspenTimes.com

In Aspen, John Kelly recalled how Reince Priebus checked his interest in Homeland Security post

In his role as secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly (right) was interviewed July 19 at the Aspen Security Forum by NBC justice correspondent Pete Williams. On Monday he was sworn in as President Donald Trump's second chief of staff.

Less than two weeks ago, John Kelly was speaking at the Aspen Security Forum in an entirely different role than he is in now.

It was July 19 at the Greenwald Pavilion on the Aspen Meadows campus where Kelly, then secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, told interviewer Pete Williams, justice correspondent for NBC News, what led to his landing the job.

It was roughly 10 days after Donald Trump had been elected president, Kelly recalled, when he was watching a college football game at home and received a telephone call. The caller was Reince Priebus, who later became Trump's chief of staff. Kelly, noting that he "literally did not know Mr. Trump at all, and I didn't know anybody that knew Mr. Trump," said he initially thought it was a prank call.

"And once he convinced me it really was Reince Priebus and not one of my retired friends who does this kind of thing," Kelly recalled, Preibus said, "Mr. Trump would like to have an opportunity to talk to you maybe about going into the administration."

Kelly would ultimately accept the role as secretary of Homeland Security. But little did Priebus, or anybody else for that matter, know at the time that Kelly would eventually take his chief of staff job.

On Monday, after Trump fired Preibus on Friday, Kelly was sworn in as the president's second chief of staff. Soon after the retired Marine general took his oath, Trump terminated White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, who had been on the job for 11 days.

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Part of the reason for ousting Scaramucci, the White House said, was to give Kelly "a clean slate and the ability to build his own team," The Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, at one point during his interview at the Aspen Security Forum, Kelly's phone rang.

"Do you need to take that call?" Williams said, to which Kelly responded: "It might be the president, so I do want to miss that call." In what was a mostly somber conversation about national security, Kelly's comment ignited laughter from the audience.

An advocate for securing the borders between the United States and Mexico, Kelly maintained at the Aspen forum that illegal immigration remains the top threat to U.S. security.

"It is from my perspective," he told Williams. "You know, let me just start up by saying my initial conversation with Mr. Trump was he said we need to secure the borders — couldn't agree more. He said … we have to ensure that the movement of legal people and legal things, whether it's Canada, the maritime borders or the southwest border, that that is not only unimpeded but it is facilitated."

Kelly went on to say that illegal movement across the southwest border has been down 70 percent in the past six months.

"And let me say up front, the people that want to come to our country, I understand why they want to come to our country," he said. "We have a better country than they have, and they're overwhelmingly decent people. But the fact is, we have a legal immigration system that allows 1.1 million people in every year that are on the road to citizenship. We are trying to get our arms around and are getting our arms around illegal immigration, not legal immigration."

Kelly also weighed in his support of Trump's travel ban that applies to the mostly Muslim countries of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Kelly said it's difficult staying current on the various court decisions that have come down the pike since Trump initiated the temporary travel ban Jan. 27. It has gone through numerous legal challenges, with the Supreme Court reinstating its key provisions June 26.

"I've lost track of the court rulings, but I have a large number of lawyers who live for the court rulings," Kelly said. "We're just being very, very careful. I do not want to get crosswise with the courts."

He also expressed frustration about states not wishing to accept help from Washington to protect their election systems from hacking.

"I think they're nuts if they don't, because I think in the world we live in, cyberwise, any second, third, fourth objective look at what you're doing would make sense, but if they don't want it, the help, they don't have to ask," he said.

Kelly's appointment to chief of staff even prompted a tweet Friday from Walter Isaacson, the outgoing president of the Aspen Institute, which hosted the Security Forum: "Unlike some other officials, in Aspen John Kelly avoided partisan shots, paid respect to Jeh Johnson, John Brennan." Johnson was Kelly's predecessor as secretary of Homeland Security, and at the Aspen Security Forum he noted that they remain good friends. Brennan ran the CIA for most of President Barack Obama's second term.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

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