The Slatest

Former Chief of Staff John Kelly Says Trump’s Ukraine Quid Pro Quo Call Amounted to an “Illegal Order”

John Kelly stands next to an American flag.
Former White House chief of staff John Kelly at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in D.C. on Oct. 11, 2018. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Former chief of staff John Kelly provided some *light touch* criticism of President Donald Trump during a forum at Drew University, which would not be out of the ordinary under normal circumstances but sadly feels like a tornado of fresh air amid Trump’s propaganda-thon. During the 75-minute event Wednesday, Kelly critiqued Trump’s overtures to Kim Jong-un, saying, “I never did think Kim would do anything other than play us for a while, and he did that fairly effectively.” Kelly said he disagreed with Trump’s rhetoric on immigrants and described Trump’s intervention in the case of the disgraced Navy SEAL accused of murder and war crimes as “exactly the wrong thing to do.”

Pretty mild stuff when you consider the severity of Trump’s actions in office. In fact, you had to parse Kelly’s remarks in order to arrive at Kelly’s most damning assessment of his former boss. It was found in Kelly’s defense of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the former National Security Council aide and Ukraine specialist who was present on the July 25 call where Trump tried to extort the president of the Ukraine. After the call, where Trump told Ukraine that he wanted an investigation into his political rival Joe Biden in return for releasing hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. military aid to Kiev, Vindman went to the White House counsel to report his concerns about the content of the call. Vindman was later called as a witness during Trump’s impeachment trial, for which he was mocked and threatened by the president, before ultimately being fired by Trump last week.

Kelly, a four-star general who had left the administration months before the Ukraine back-and-forth, supported Vindman’s course of action. “Through the Obama administration up until that phone call, the policy of the U.S. was militarily to support Ukraine in their defensive fight against … the Russians,” Kelly said. “And so, when the president said that continued support would be based on X, that essentially changed. And that’s what that guy [Vindman] was most interested in.” Kelly went on to assert that Trump’s actions on the call were tantamount to an illegal order, one which Vindman was duty-bound to disobey. “We teach them, ‘Don’t follow an illegal order. And if you’re ever given one, you’ll raise it to whoever gives it to you that this is an illegal order, and then tell your boss,’ ” Kelly said. “He did exactly what we teach them to do from cradle to grave. … He went and told his boss what he just heard.”

An illegal order, huh? As in something that is against the law? Something that would be grounds for impeachment?