Ex-General to Top Brass: Stay Out of the ‘Cesspool of Domestic Politics’

With Trump and Clinton having considered generals for VP, retired Marine Gen. John Kelly warns about the dangers of a political Pentagon.


It is unsettling at first to see retired Gen. John Kelly — whose nearly 46 years in the military spanned from Vietnam to Iraq — in a slightly oversized suit instead of the olive green starched uniform of the Marine Corps that he wore for more than two-thirds of his life. Kelly says he is still getting used to it himself.

Though out of uniform, a general known for candor is striving to keep his politics private, a sharp contrast with other officers like former Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who ran the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Obama administration before being fired in 2014 and is one of a handful of recently retired senior military officials being aggressively courted by, or themselves courting, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s rival presidential campaigns.

To Kelly and many other current and former military, the brass who are weighing in on the 2016 campaign with critiques or endorsements are breaking down a sacred wall between the military and civilian politics that helps maintain the “tell it like it is” integrity of one of the most trusted institutions in the United States.

“It adds to this mistrust issue … if suddenly a guy retires and says, ‘I think this administration is doing all the wrong things for all the wrong reasons,’” he said. The worst thing, Kelly added, would be for a president “to ever think for a second that he’s getting anything but the absolute best military advice, completely devoid of politics.”

During a 90-minute interview focused largely on the 2016 election and what’s next, Kelly made little effort to hide his distaste for the “cesspool of domestic politics,” particularly the rhetorical arms race of the presidential campaigns.

He said Clinton and Trump “are not serious yet about the issues” and speak only in generalities when it comes to complex topics ranging from combating the Islamic State to handling the Syrian refugee crisis. The campaigns “don’t reflect reality.”  

Kelly said he’d be willing to serve in either a Trump or Clinton White House but didn’t endorse either. Whomever wins, he added, “will be in desperate need — and I mean desperate need — of military and foreign policy advice, because the world out there is just getting crazier and crazier.”

Politics isn’t new to Kelly, who served as the Marines’ congressional liaison and later as senior military assistant to Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.

Kelly never had the national profile of a Gen. David Petraeus, the face of the Iraq war before his ignominious resignation from heading the CIA, though the Marine led troops through some of the most violent days of the conflict in some of the same cities the U.S. military is helping Iraqi forces wrest back from the Islamic State. But given the spate of national security concerns facing the next president, the former head of U.S. Southern Command holds the kind of resume that would be attractive to either Trump or Clinton.

Both the presumptive Republican and Democratic nominees are expected to announce their running mates in the coming days before the presidential conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia. They are trying to garner the endorsements of top brass who can burnish their commander-in-chief credentials while attacking their rival’s. Trump may go even further and tap a retired general as a running mate; the mogul has said two retired senior officers are on his vice presidential shortlist.

One of those is Flynn, who alleges he was fired from his DIA post for attempting to depoliticize the intelligence community. The retired officer is a pro-choice Democrat with a book coming out Tuesday that bashes the Obama administration’s handling of national security. He also plans to be in Cleveland during the GOP convention but hasn’t yet said if he will play a role in it.

Other recently retired senior officers have considered third-party bids against Trump or found his tirades so alarming they’ve crossed party lines to support Clinton.

Both retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the former Joint Chiefs chairman, and retired Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis were recruited to run against Trump but opted out.

Of the two defense secretaries whose ears Kelly once held, Panetta has already endorsed Clinton, and Gates has been complimentary of the former secretary of state. Each has said they developed an unexpected but strong alliance with Clinton because of her respect for the military and willingness to push Obama to act more aggressively on the world stage.

Other recently retired and current military officials have also waded — or been pulled  — into the election because of debates over gun control or Trump’s on-again-off-again ban on Muslims entering the United States. That’s prompted Kelly’s friend, Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford, to draft guidance reminding senior officers to stay out.

Kelly said neither campaign has reached out to him formally, but several Republican members of Congress said Trump should consider him.

“I think one great untapped pool is our retired generals and admirals,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said in a recent interview, naming Kelly first on such a list.  

Kelly’s two sons followed him into the Marines. His eldest, Robert, was killed in Afghanistan in 2010, granting Kelly the grim distinction of being the highest-ranking officer since 9/11 to lose a child in combat. Kelly’s voice thickens in the interview when he talks about veterans from Vietnam to the new era of forever war that Obama hasn’t brought to a close, but extended.

Kelly has known the president for nearly a decade. He accompanied Obama, then an Illinois senator, on his first overseas trip as the presumptive Democratic nominee eight years ago.  

“I will never forget,” said Sen. Jack Reed, (D-R.I.), who rode in a heavily armored truck in Iraq’s Anbar province with Kelly, Obama, and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), later Obama’s defense secretary. Kelly turned to Obama, and Reed, who is also a Vietnam-era veteran, said he expected an equipment request. Instead, Kelly expressed concern about the long-term mental health of his military men and women.

“It struck me profoundly that’s the one thing you say to the likely next president of the United States,” Reed said.

In the interview, Kelly said he worries about how the next president will confront the challenges Obama was unable to resolve during his two terms in office, and dismissed some of the talking points the two candidates use on the stump.

Kelly has long argued that Americans’ drug addiction fuels instability in Central America, and that insufficient resources and inconsistent policy leave the region’s criminal networks ripe for exploitation by terrorist groups. But he stressed in the interview that the risk wasn’t as bad as conservative pundits liked to argue. He also fired a direct shot at one of Trump’s main policy proposals, stressing that “no wall will work by itself.”

Trump wasn’t the only candidate Kelly criticized, at least obliquely. The retired general said the anti-Islamic State fight will continue long after Obama — and probably his successor — leaves office, a grim reality that neither Clinton nor Trump seems eager to openly discuss.

“You’re not going to win this thing by dropping bombs on these people,” he said, adding that neither presidential candidate was willing to acknowledge that the sustained “victory” they promise would likely require a large number of U.S. and coalition troops deployed to Iraq for decades to come.

Reflecting on a half-century of hard-won lessons in military service — and harder ones when his career intersected with politics — Kelly said he doesn’t think he and his fellow brass should play a public role in campaign 2016.

“To join in the political fray, I don’t think it convinces anyone,” he said. “It just becomes a talking point on CNN.”

Photo credit: CHRIS MADDALONI/Contributor