Watch CBS News

John Kelly agrees with Mattis and says nation needs to choose leaders more wisely

Trump lashes out at James Mattis
Trump lashes out at former Defense Secretary James Mattis after he denounced response to protesters 02:52

Former White House chief of staff John Kelly says he agrees with what former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said earlier this week, although he didn't delve into many specifics from Mattis' blistering statement. The former White House chief of staff also said the nation needs to better vet the character of candidates for public office. 

Kelly made the comments in an interview with former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci during a virtual SALT conference. Kelly said he hadn't spoken with Mattis before he made the statement, but said the former defense secretary wouldn't make such a statement lightly. Mattis called Mr. Trump the "first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try."

"He's quite a man, General Jim Mattis, and for him to do that tells you where he is relative to the concern he has for our country," Kelly said of Mattis' statement as a whole. 

Asked by Scaramucci if he agrees with Mattis, Kelly said he does. 

"I agree with him. I think we need to step back from the politics," Kelly said, without detailing which parts of Mattis' statement he agrees with most. "I think we need to reestablish, and I'm not a constitutional scholar but boy do I read a lot and I've re-read an awful lot in the last three weeks about the thinking that made our Constitution what it is, the men who made that Constitution, who developed that Constitution. And the separation of powers is very, very, very important. No president ever is a dictator or a king."  

Pointing to ongoing concerns like the federal government's handling of the coronavirus crisis, Kelly said the nation needs to be more serious about vetting the character of candidates for public office. 

"I do think that we're a little bit out of balance relative to how the country's functioning and how American citizens are looking at their government," Kelly said. "I think we really need to step back. I think we need to look harder at who we elect. I think we should start, all of us, regardless of what our views are in politics, I think we should look at people that are running for office and put them through the filter. What is their character like? What are their ethics? Are they willing, if they're elected, to represent all of their constituents, not just the base, but all of their constituents? And then look at the politics." 

The former top aide to the president said the end result of Mr. Trump's walk to St. John's Church, made possible after police forcibly cleared the area of protesters, was "predictable."

Kelly, who left the White House in late 2018, contradicted the president's claim that he fired Mattis. 

"No, he did not," Kelly said. "I don't want to — let me just say that over time, every relationship up there begins to deteriorate for a lot of different reasons, I don't have to tell you that." 

Mattis' statement was the strongest yet from him, and perhaps from any former top aide to the president. 

"Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people—does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us," Mattis said in his lengthy statement titled, "In union there is strength." "We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society."

Mattis' words had ripple effects on Washington, where Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski said she agrees with Mattis' "overdue" statement words about president and isn't sure whether she can continue to support him. 

The president made it clear he no longer supports her

"Few people know where they'll be in two years from now, but I do, in the Great State of Alaska (which I love) campaigning against Senator Lisa Murkowski. She voted against HealthCare, Justice Kavanaugh, and much else..." the president tweeted Thursday evening. "Unrelated, I gave Alaska ANWR, major highways, and more. Get any candidate ready, good or bad, I don't care, I'm endorsing. If you have a pulse, I'm with you!"

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.