Former White House Chief of Staff John Kelly says he told President Donald Trump during his final days on the job not to hire a "yes man" to succeed him, warning the president that he risked impeachment if he did so.
Kelly, in an interview with the Washington Examiner Saturday, seemed to pin responsibility for the most serious political crisis of Trump's presidency on acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
"I said, whatever you do — and we were still in the process of trying to find someone to take my place — I said whatever you do, don't hire a 'yes man,' someone who won't tell you the truth — don't do that. Because if you do, I believe you will be impeached," Kelly told the Washington Examiner at the Sea Island Summit, a political conference hosted by the paper.
Kelly resigned as chief of staff in December 2018 after clashing with national security officials as well as First Lady Melania Trump. The retired Marine Corps general and former Homeland Security Secretary succeeded Reince Priebus, the former head of the Republican Party who spent less than a year in the position. Kelly sought to bring order to a chaotic administration, limiting access to Trump and disciplining staffers who sought to circumvent his authority.
Kelly expressed regrets about leaving, saying he believes that Trump would not be facing impeachment if he had stayed.
"That was almost 11 months ago, and I have an awful lot of, to say the least, second thoughts about leaving," Kelly told the Washington Examiner. "It pains me to see what's going on because I believe if I was still there or someone like me was there, he would not be kind of, all over the place."
The Democrat-controlled House of Representatives has launched an impeachment inquiry into Trump for allegedly abusing his power as president to solicit the help of a foreign country to influence the upcoming 2020 presidential election. The inquiry stems from a July phone call in which Trump pressed the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, one of the top contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, and his son Hunter.
Mulvaney, who succeeded Kelly as chief of staff, was involved in putting a hold on almost $400 million in security assistance to Ukraine before Trump's July call, which has raised concern that the White House was trying to leverage Kyiv into investigating the Bidens by offering a quid pro quo.
In a press conference last week Mulvaney added fuel to the fire when he said the money was put on hold in connection with "an ongoing investigation into the 2016 election" and the unsubstantiated theory that a hacked Democratic National Committee server is in Ukraine. The implication is that Kyiv might somehow be involved in the hack. The intelligence community and Robert Mueller's investigation concluded that Russia hacked the server as part of its campaign to bolster Trump's bid for the White House in 2016.
"Get over it -- there's going to be political influence in foreign policy," Mulvaney said during the press conference. The acting chief of staff later tried to walk back his remarks, flatly denying that there was a quid pro quo.
Kelly said the president needs someone to set boundaries.
"Someone has got to be a guide that tells you [the president] that you either have the authority or you don't, or Mr. President, don't do it," Kelly told the Washington Examiner. "But don't hire someone that will just nod and say, 'That's a great idea Mr. President.' Because you will be impeached."
The White House has denied Kelly's account of events.
"John Kelly never said that, he never said anything like that. If he would have said that I would have thrown him out of the office. He just wants to come back into the action like everybody else does," Trump said in a statement.
"I worked with John Kelly, and he was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our great President," said White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham.