John Kelly just showed Trump how to act presidential

Key Points
  • White House chief of staff John Kelly attended the daily press briefing on Thursday, where be displayed both diplomacy and candor.
  • Kelly answered questions about the president's feuds with members of Congress, his border wall, and Kelly's own frustration with the news media.
  • Kelly's performance offered a window into why the president's top aide is indispensable within the White House.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly: I don't think I'm being fired

White House chief of staff John Kelly attended the daily press briefing on Thursday, and over the course of 20 minutes of questions, the retired Marine general offered a master class in how to win friends and influence countries.

Kelly openly disagreed with Republican lawmakers without insulting them, he chided the press for what he called "inaccurate" stories without alienating or singling out specific reporters, and he addressed a number of major foreign policy challenges without tearing up delicate alliances.

As Trump struggles to move beyond a series of seemingly self-inflicted political headaches, Kelly's performance at the lectern Thursday offered a different example of how Trump might approach U.S. allies, members of Congress and even the news media, and potentially advance his agenda.

Asked about Trump's recent tweets about border policy, in which the president claimed that Democrats "don't care about safety for U.S.A." Kelly began his answer by saying, "I believe that honest men and women can disagree on anything politically or otherwise.

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"There are certainly people in our country that have the opinion that open borders or near-open borders are fine; people should be able to come and go. There are others, myself included -- you can bet the president -- but I think the majority of Americans, feel as though security on the borders is important. Now, how you achieve that is a different story."

Kelly held firmly to the idea of securing the border with "a physical barrier." But in the same answer, the retired general took his answer in a different direction from the president, who has long vilified Mexico.

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Kelly praised the Mexican military, which has fought a decades-long war on drug cartels at great human cost. "Mexico and Central America suffer more from our drug demand, and do more, in many ways, to stop that drug flow than we do in our own country," he said.

Here, Kelly acknowledged two big-picture truths that Trump seems loathe to admit: Firstly, that Americans' demand for drugs fuels the Mexican drug trade, and secondly, that citizens of other countries have suffered far worse at the hands of drug cartels than have Americans.

Kelly also fielded questions about two of Trump's recent targets in Congress, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

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Asked about Trump's Twitter attacks on Corker, Kelly said that "when members of Congress say things that are unfair or critical, the president has a right to defend himself." He also said that some members of Congress "grandstand," but quickly added, "I'm not saying Senator Corker is that way. I'm just saying some people grandstand."

As for McConnell, instead of echoing the president's frequent complaints about the Senate's inability to pass Trump's legislative priorities, which is what White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders typically does, Kelly showed some empathy for the Republican Senate leader.

"He's the leader, but it's really hard to lead," Kelly said of McConnell. "Congress is designed to be an extremely complicated, slow-moving part of our government," he said, adding, "I have nothing but respect for members of Congress and the staffs that work so hard for them."

But while Kelly clearly had no bone to pick with members of Congress on Thursday, there was one frustration he wanted White House reporters to know about.

"My only frustration, with all due respect to everyone in the room, is when I come to work in the morning and read about things I allegedly said, or things that Mr. Trump allegedly said, or people who are going to be fired, or whatever you all think. And it's just not true."

But while Trump in recent days has repeatedly threatened to "revoke" the broadcasting licenses of news organizations, including NBC, and said it's "frankly disgusting, the way the press is able to write whatever they want to write," Kelly took a different tack.

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"When I watch TV in the morning, it is astounding to me how much is misreported," Kelly told the reporters in the White House briefing room. "I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you are operating off of contacts, leaks, whatever you call them. But I would just offer to you the advice: I would say maybe develop some better sources. Some person that works way down inside an office, or -- well, just develop some better sources," he said.

WATCH: Kelly says US will stand with any country against terrorism

Gen. Kelly: The US will stand with any country against terrorism