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tv   The David Rubenstein Show Peer to Peer Conversations  Bloomberg  May 24, 2020 10:00am-10:30am EDT

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♪ david: so, was it the hardest job you ever had? gen. kelly: it was very, very hard but very meaningful. not very enjoyable. david: your family was a blue-collar family. gen. kelly: very, very blue-collar. my dad was a world war ii vet. greatest man i ever knew. david: so you were in combat. and did you expect that you would survive? it was very dangerous. gen. kelly: it was dangerous. there's a lot of shooting and bombs and whatnot. but we are marines. david: did you ever say to the president that maybe the tweets are too much? gen. kelly: never did. the president feels very strongly that his tweeting goes around the press. >> would you fix your tie, please? david: well, people wouldn't recognize me if my tie was fixed, but ok. let's leave it this way. all right.
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i don't consider myself a journalist. and nobody else would consider myself a journalist. i began to take on the life of being an interviewer, even though i have a day job of running a private equity firm. how do you define leadership? what is it that makes somebody tick? so let's talk about what it was like to be chief of staff to president trump. was it all that you thought it would be, in terms of the difficulty? more difficult than you thought? are you pleased you did the job? gen. kelly: it was certainly amongst the hardest jobs i ever had in my life. i would say this as well after i was in the military. it was the most important thing i ever did. for 18 months, i staffed the president the way i think a president should be staffed. presenting him options, getting the experts in with him to talk
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and hash things out. that's what chief of staff does. that was vitally important. for the 18 months i was there, i think we staffed the president very effectively. david: was it the hardest job you ever had? the most memorable job? the most enjoyable? or just another interesting job? gen. kelly: no, it was very hard, but very meaningful. not very enjoyable. but, you know, i mean, staffing the president of the united states, i mean, you are trying to bring together not only a white house staff, but the entire federal government to help him make the kind of decisions, whether it is economic decisions, social decisions, or, you know, life and death wartime decisions. david: in washington, people stab you in the back. but sometimes they stab you in the front. that is the job that the chief of staff is said to have. you get criticized by everybody. did you feel that the criticism by people or the attacks on you,
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for any reason, was something that was unfair or intolerable, or did you just get used to it? gen. kelly: i wasn't used to -- one of the things that struck me right away that i was not used to, coming out of the military, was the intense personal ambition that people have. because if that gets out of hand, which i think it was out of hand before my time, and it continued a bit while i was there, people start to do things, like leak to the press things that are untrue or half true, not just towards the people at the top, like me, but their colleagues. one of the things i did very early on when i took over the white house is get all of the staff together. there's a lot of them, so i had to do several sessions. and just said, nowhere in the oath of office that you take to support and defend the constitution of the united states, nowhere in there does it say you should be talking to the press, unless that is part of your job and authorized. nowhere does it say you should
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be stabbing your colleagues in the back so you look better. you serve the nation. if you take the oath seriously, you've got a job, and i want you to stay. if you can't do that, find another place to work. david: when you are in the military, and you tell people you do x, y, or z, they jump, or they are in trouble or will be court-martialed or something. when you tell people as chief of staff that they should do x, y, or z, and they don't do it, what can you really do about it? gen. kelly: in the military, if you tell someone to do x, y, or z, we expect people to question orders, to push back. so, i can't, as a commander, know everything. in the white house, you can fire people. i had to fire a few people. but very, very few. they were very disruptive, but i had good people. the vast majority of the people, david, who work there are good people. they just need some direction. david: when donald trump was elected, you were already
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retired from the military. gen. kelly: i had retired from the military about eight months at that point, never wanting to work again. david: and did you know donald trump before? gen. kelly: not in any way. david: you met him in the transition, i assume? gen. kelly: i received a phone call in late november on a saturday. they asked me if i wouldn't consider coming up to meet with the president-elect and talk to him about going into the administration. my wife, after the phone call, asked me, you know, what was that all about? i explained to her. i said, what do you think? she said, if we are nothing else as a family, we are a family of service. so why don't you at least go up and talk to them? i went up the next day to bedminster and talked to the president-elect. reince priebus was there. a couple of other people. we had a short chitchat. about 10 days later, he asked me to come up to new york city to trump tower.
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he offered me the dhs job. david: and did you say, "i accept," right on the spot? did you feel you wanted to go into that job? gen. kelly: again, up to that point in time, my lifestyle was service to the nation. obviously, i had to get out of the marine corps. i was getting too old. but the opportunity to serve was something i really looked forward to. dhs was a great job. the men and women of dhs are phenomenal patriots. they are unsung heroes. david: you did that job for how long before you became chief of staff? gen. kelly: right at six months. i left the job on the 31st of july. david: did the president call you a few times before saying, "i don't like my chief of staff"? how did you get asked to do the chief of staff job? gen. kelly: it was a couple days before it was announced. during my time at dhs, i didn't go to the white house a lot. didn't need to. most cabinet people are busy doing what they do, but he and i had a previous discussion on a couple of things relative to the staff. anyways, he called me and said i would really like you to come on over and be chief of staff. i need your kind of leadership
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to put this place in a direction. david: and you said, "my wife wouldn't want me to do this. it is a terrible job. i don't want to do this"? gen. kelly: i really like dhs, the people were making a difference. an awful lot of your agenda is wrapped up in dhs. but he said, "i really need you to do this." the president asked. i did it. david: did men working for you get killed? gen. kelly: oh, yeah. it is part of the lifestyle. it is not an easy part of the lifestyle. there are a lot of things that you would be woken up for in the middle of the night. i think i owe the marine, sailor, soldier to at least be woken up and someone to tell me this young man, young woman died in defense of their country. ♪
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david: i would like to talk about the job you did as chief of staff. before that, i want to talk about your background. so where are you originally from? gen. kelly: i grew up in boston. david: and your family was a blue-collar family? gen. kelly: very, very blue-collar. my dad was a world war ii vet. he worked two jobs his whole life. mailman and railroad. greatest man i ever knew. david: so you went to high school where? gen. kelly: st. mary's high school, just outside of boston. david: and when you graduated,
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what did you do? gen. kelly: i went to almost a year of college. i had -- the war was -- i graduated in 1968. the war was on. coming from the kind of neighborhood i came from, i mean, every man in my life, growing up as a boy, was either a world war ii vet or a korean war vet. that's all they talked about. and so we had the draft back then. it was relatively easy to get out of the draft. i mean, you just had to come in with a doctor's note or go to college. there were a lot of deferments. i didn't want to get out, so when i passed my draft physical, which would've brought me into the army, like most of the guys in my neighborhood, i went into the marine corps. david: you entered the marine corps. you became a lieutenant? gen. kelly: i became a private. i went from private to private first class. ultimately, i made sergeant. as an infantry man, made sergeant. my mother was diagnosed with cancer, so i get out of the marine corps, but stayed in a program that continued my training while i was going to college.
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and as soon as i graduated from college, university of massachusetts in boston, i get commissioned and went back into the marine corps and stayed forever. david: the highest you can become is a four-star general. gen. kelly: four-star rank. david: you became a four-star general. gen. kelly: i became a four-star. david: did you ever expect when you were just beginning that you would be a general? gen. kelly: no. when i was an enlisted marine, i wanted to be hopefully an nco. that's corporal. i made sergeant, best rank i ever held. david: ok, so you are in the marine corps. as you rise up, one of your assignments is to go into iraq after the invasion in 2003. so you were in combat. did you expect that you would survive? it was fairly dangerous. gen. kelly: well, it is dangerous. there's a lot of shooting and bombs and whatnot. but we are marines. you take that on as a possibility. when we were designing the campaign plan, one of the things we did was to, you know, understand the iraqi army was nothing close to us. but we designed a strategy that
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would minimize the amount of damage to the country and the amount of death to the iraqi army. we went there and our mindset was that we were not there to conquer them but to liberate them. so we didn't want to kill a lot of them. i mean the army. obviously, you always try not to kill the innocent. david: you thought it would have been over in one or two weeks, and people would be cheering you? gen. kelly: well, they were cheering us, almost everywhere we went, they came out in huge numbers. but the attack part of it was, in a sense, easy. we knew we were going to win. we knew we were going to get to baghdad in lightning time. but what we kept asking in the kuwait desert, leading up to the invasion in march was, who is going to take this over from us? mr. rumsfeld had come out very strongly and said, we, the u.s. military, is not going to get involved in nationbuilding. our question was, ok, who will we turn that over to? because we should start thinking
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about that now. and so, the idea that we were going to leave quickly, which the military did start to do, but not have anyone to turn it over to, that caused us great concern, as military men. david: did men working for you get killed, under you? gen. kelly: oh, yeah. david: so what do you do in that situation? do you send a letter to the next of kin? or how do you deal with that emotionally? gen. kelly: yeah, well, i mean, it's part of the lifestyle. it is not an easy part of the lifestyle. when i was a commander there, when i went back for a subsequent tour, i was the senior marine commander on the ground. and there were a lot of things that you might list that would be woken up for in the middle of the night. and i only had two of them. a missing american, because then we had to go to general quarters to find that person. and then, a death. and people would say, why did you want to get woken up on the deaths? there's nothing you can do.
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i said, well, i think i owe the marine, sailor, soldier, and their family at least to be woken up and for someone to tell me that this young man, this young woman died in the defense of their country. david: let's talk about after he retired, for a while, before you joined the trump administration, you were in the business world. or what were you doing? gen. kelly: not very much. i started working with the national defense university, which is part of dod. and then i just started to get a couple of opportunities to be on boards. i joined those boards. but almost as soon as i joined them, i was disengaging, because i had -- i was in the process of going to dhs. david: all right, so you are on some corporate boards for the first time. you are making more money than presumably you made in the marine corps. gen. kelly: not huge money but more than the marine corps. [laughs] david: all right, so going back in the government, it was another cut in salary, but your family didn't say anything about that? gen. kelly: what was interesting, going into dhs, i
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was about $50,000 more than i made a year as a four-star. and then what i didn't know, that my wife said to me after a couple of weeks at being at the white house, she said, "i think our pay is wrong," because the paycheck is smaller. i didn't realize they took a pretty major pay cut to be chief of staff. david: you didn't ask the president? gen. kelly: money is not relevant. david: let's talk about your family for a moment. when you are a four-star, you're often traveling all over the place. your wife gets to travel with you on some of your assignments. how many different places did you have to move as a general? gen. kelly: well, when i was -- my wife would love that question. when i was in miami, my wife went to guantanamo bay for three years, so we could have thanksgiving dinner with the troops down there, at the detention facility. i took her to haiti.
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i took her to honduras once, maybe twice. maybe honduras and guatemala. one each. then once to peru. david: what about paris or london? gen. kelly: no. david: none of that? and so you have three children. you fathered three children. gen. kelly: right. david: your oldest son is in the military still. gen. kelly: he is a lieutenant colonel in the marine corps. fairly recently promoted. just back from his -- one of his tours in iraq. david: you have a daughter. what is she doing? gen. kelly: she was with the fbi. prior to that, actually, she was, she worked with the wounded men and women, mostly men, coming back from the wars at bethesda naval hospital. then she went into the fbi. she was with the hostage rescue team as one of the support people for several years. david: you had another son who lost his life in military combat. gen. kelly: that's right. he started off as an enlisted marine and then he became a second lieutenant and was killed in afghanistan.
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david: did you and your wife say, having two sons in the marines was an awful sacrifice for any family? gen. kelly: no, it is our way of life. that may sound strange to the listeners, but it's a way of life. they make their own decisions. david: what would you say is the best training to be chief of staff of the white house, and particularly with president trump? what do you think is the best training? gen. kelly: i think, one, you have to tell the boss the truth. when you don't think he's going down the right road, not in front of a bunch of people, but when you don't think he is going down the right road, to tell him that. truth to power. david: ok. gen. kelly: someone in the room has got to say, at the beginning of every conversation and at the end, "is this good for america?" ♪
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david: so let's go forward now to chief of staff. so you are the chief of staff, sounds like a good title. everybody, presumably, in the government is responsive to you. you can call any cabinet secretary and tell them what to do. is that the way it works? general kelly: i wouldn't say i tell them what to do. i would suggest. they are cabinet members. the president puts out, as you know, whether it's tweets or his time with the press, and he does a lot of discussion with the press, he puts out his feelings on different things. more often than not, i would get calls from the cabinet people saying, i heard him say this. is that a change? should we react to it? so the president is never hesitant to pick up the phone and talk to his own cabinet members. david: ok. did you ever say to the president, maybe the tweets are too much to keep up with?
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or maybe you should not tweet as much? gen. kelly: never did. the president feels very, very strongly, whether you agree with this or not, feels very strongly that he is not dealt with by the press fairly and that his tweeting goes around the press and gets his agenda out, gets his word out to the world, without having to rely on a press conference. david: now, let's talk about a few substantive issues. early in the administration, when you were at the department of homeland security, there was the issue of immigration, the ban on immigration and so forth. were you alerted to that when you were there? and how do you think that, ultimately, is now working out? gen. kelly: three days after i became the dhs secretary, the e.o. came out on the so-called travel ban. as a sidebar, i would say the seven countries involved in the president's thinking were all dysfunctional.
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you know, i mean, iran, everybody knows it is a hotbed of terrorism. the other countries were dysfunctional. the entire population -- muslim population of those countries added up to about 11% of the world's population. the point is, those countries, they don't have a process that we could bless and say, the people that they say are coming out of those countries to come to the united states, for whatever reason, there's no way to really tell who they are, because these countries are in a state of collapse. it could've been done better. back to, david, the staff process. if that had been when i was there, say several months later, the idea that the president might want to do that -- and he has strong feelings on immigration, we all know that -- we would have run that through this process and at least had a better release plan. david: when you were at the white house, you also had the wall issue. the president wanted to build a wall. you were quoted a few times as saying well, it doesn't have to be a concrete wall.
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it can be see-through or something like that. was there a difference between you and the president on that? do you think the wall is a good policy? gen. kelly: when i got to dhs, i went to the experts, customs and border protection people that man the bastion down there, the watchtower and said, "do we need a wall, a physical barrier?" they said, we need more. we have, remember, back in 2006, the congress authorized over 650 miles of wall. and senators clinton, schumer, and obama all voted for it. so that was in 2006. 650 miles. what the cbp people were telling me is we want to improve that barrier. and we can give you -- if you can tell me how i can get 300 more miles, i can tell you exactly where to put it. if you tell me i can have 1000 more miles, i can tell you exactly where i want it. they also said that we want to be able to see through the wall. because we want to be able to
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track what is going on on the other side, and just as importantly, according to them, and they are the experts, we want the people that are contemplating jumping the wall to see us, because if they see us, they don't do it. david: he had a meeting twice. he met twice with the leader of north korea. did you think that was a good meet without advance preparation about what would happen? and do you think the policy of meeting actually usually works, or you should always have advance preparation? gen. kelly: there's a lot of advanced preparation. there's a lot of advanced preparation. there's a lot of letters back and forth. people at state and other places have their contacts there. but i will applaud the president in that he looked back on the last, i don't know, 70 years of trying to deal with the north korean leadership, and none of that was working. and he is the kind of guy i grew to know that wanted to try it personally. so i will pick the phone up and
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talk to the guy. or i will want to meet with him and try to develop a relationship. that is who he is. i think many times it was, all the other stuff has not worked for 70 years. what the heck, let's give it a try. david: some people would say the president was very reluctant to criticize putin for anything. and he seemed overly friendly with him, compared to other presidents. do you think that is a fair comment? why do you think it was? gen. kelly: the explanation was much like with kim. he -- things had not been working very well over the last 8, 10, 35 years. and he is, again, he is a pick-the-phone-up-and-talk-to-th pick-the-phone-up-and-talk-to-th kind of guy. david: was it complicated to have the president's family in the government at the time? gen. kelly: they are an influence that has to be dealt with. david: today -- gen. kelly: i do not mean mrs. trump. the first lady is a wonderful person.
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david: if you had to advise somebody who was going to be chief of staff in the future, what would you say is the best training to be chief of staff of the white house, and particularly with president trump? what do you think is the best training? gen. kelly: well, i think, one, you have to tell the boss the truth. when you don't think he's going down the right road, not in front of a bunch of people, tell him that. truth to power. david: ok. gen. kelly: someone in the room has got to say at the beginning of every conversation and at the end, "is this good for america?" david: so when you told the president in private, i think you should do something different, did he yell? gen. kelly: no, we would have a discussion on it. david: ok. gen. kelly: more often than not he would say, ok, let's bring them back in. david: if you had to do it all over again, would you have taken the job of chief of staff? are you glad that you took that job? gen. kelly: well, again, that was drafted into the job. david: knowing everything you now know. gen. kelly: yes. as hard as it was, i feel very
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strongly -- i don't know what has happened since, but for 18 months, president donald j. trump, on every issue, was well-staffed, was well-informed. we gave him options. well, i will just leave it at that. david: as you look back on your career, what would you say you are most proud of having achieved? and did your parents live to see you become a general? gen. kelly: my dad did. well, many things, i would say for over 40 years, i served the nation in peace and war. it goes without saying i am most proud of my family and my kids. but for over 40 -- nearly 45 years, served the nation in peace and wars, served honorably and with integrity. david: have you considered yourself retired, or will you be active in the business world? gen. kelly: i don't know how to retire. david: what do you plan to spend most of your time doing? gen. kelly: no idea what i'm going to do. but i don't know how to retire. david: would you consider the highest calling of mankind
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private equity? not sure about that? gen. kelly: not sure about that, david. [laughter] ♪
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