John Kelly, US President Donald Trump’s new chief of staff, is a retired Marine Corps general who had been serving as secretary of the immense Department of Homeland Security after 45 years in uniform.
Kelly, 67, has a reputation for straight talk and will need to bring all of his toughness and organizational talent to bear in his new job as he seeks to right a White House which has frequently given the appearance of being in disarray.
Trump, in a series of tweets announcing that he had named Kelly to replace Reince Priebus as chief of staff, described him as a “Great American and a Great Leader.”
Kelly will go from leading the fight against Islamic extremists and illegal immigration to running a White House which has been plagued by political intrigue and under a cloud because of allegations of election collusion with Russia.
Priebus, a former chairman of the Republican Party, was removed as chief of staff just days after Trump ignored his wishes and named Wall Street financier Anthony Scaramucci to be the new White House communications director.
Kelly is one of a number of former generals chosen by Trump for high-ranking positions in his administration.
Kelly capped his military career as head of the US Southern Command, an assignment that immersed him in border security issues, migrant flows and counter-drug operations in the Caribbean and Central and South America.
That experience prepared him well to take charge of the Department of Homeland Security, a sprawling bureaucracy responsible for border protection and internal security.
Those functions made Kelly a pivotal figure in carrying out Trump’s election promises to build a wall on the Mexican border, deport undocumented immigrants and tighten visa screening for potential extremists.
Trump was apparently impressed enough by the job Kelly had done so far to move him closer to the Oval Office.
“John has also done a spectacular job at Homeland Security,” Trump said. “He has been a true star of my administration.”
The blunt-talking Kelly is close to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, also a retired Marine general. Kelly served as Mattis’s top aide in the 2003 assault on Baghdad that crushed Saddam Hussein’s army.
He is also shaped by the experience of having his own son, also a Marine, die in battle. First Lieutenant Robert Michael Kelly was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010.
A native of Boston, Kelly enlisted in the Marines when he was 20, spent two years in an infantry company, and then left to go to university.
After graduating he rejoined the Corps as a second lieutenant and rose steadily through a number of positions, including company and battalion commands.
In the late 1990s, he was the Marine Corps commandant’s liaison to Congress, the first of two such stints that exposed him to political give-and-take between the military and legislators.
In 1999, he began a two-year stint as special assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, in Mons, Belgium.
In 2002-2003, as a colonel and then brigadier general, Kelly returned to the 1st Marine Division, serving under then major general Mattis in the successful assault on Baghdad.
Five years later he was back in Iraq for the US occupation, holding two posts over the 2008-2011 period. He earned his fourth star when he was named to head the US Southern Command in 2012, a position he held until retiring in January 2016.
Besides contending with violent drug gangs operating across the region and deep inside the United States, Kelly also was responsible for the prison for war on terror detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said Kelly was “well thought of and well liked” by both Democrats and Republicans in fiercely divided Washington.
Manchin was also asked in an interview on CNN if Kelly was the man to restore order to the White House.
“If a general can’t do it I don’t know who can,” he said. “They’re not going to put up with any nonsense.”
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