MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
White House chief of staff John Kelly is making news again, this time over an interview he gave last night on Fox News. Kelly was asked for his thoughts on Confederate monuments and whether they should be pulled down. He cautioned against judging historical figures by today's standards. And then he said this.
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JOHN KELLY: The lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War. And men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand where their conscience had them make their stand.
M. KELLY: At the White House briefing today, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders defended Kelly.
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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: There's pretty strong consensus people from the left, the right, the North and the South that believed that if some of the individuals engaged had been willing to come to some compromises with different things, then it may not have occurred.
M. KELLY: This interpretation of Civil War history has got a lot of people talking, among them NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hey, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.
M. KELLY: Tell me what the range of reaction has been to Kelly's remarks.
LIASSON: Well, a lot of historians are having trouble interpreting his remarks. They see those comments as puzzling, even shocking to some historians who point out that the Civil War was fought about slavery, and it wasn't for a lack of compromise. As a matter of fact, everything we learned in elementary school - the entire history of America up to the Civil War was the story of repeated compromises about slavery - the Missouri Compromise, the Three-Fifths Compromise, compromises to allow some states to keep slaves, some not.
But those compromises became untenable, and the South's secession documents make it pretty clear they wanted a separate nation where they could have slaves. So Kelly's remarks about the Civil War really echo something that the president said back in May when he suggested that some kind of deal could have been worked out to avert the Civil War. He said then, quote, "why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?"
M. KELLY: And to remind people, General Kelly is a four-star general who lost a son in combat. This is someone the White House often points to as having unimpeachable credibility, someone who is above politics. Are we seeing that image of John Kelly changing?
LIASSON: I think we're learning a lot about more - a lot more about who John Kelly is. He has now become a full-spectrum chief of staff with all the pitfalls that come with that. At first he kept a very low profile. We know he had taken a pretty hard line on immigration and national security when he was head of the Department of Homeland Security. But there was a conventional wisdom about Kelly, which might have been based on a lot of assumptions that weren't true, that he was apolitical and nonpartisan.
But now he's appearing in public more, and he's shown that he is willing to wade into the culture wars. And now for the second time in two weeks, the White House has had to defend and explain some comments that he made first about his description of comments that Congresswoman Frederica Wilson apparently did not make and now the Civil War.
M. KELLY: Yeah. I mean, you hear Kelly talked about as the adult in the room...
M. KELLY: ...At the White House. This is someone who is looked up to. Is - any sign that this is impacting in any way his ability to do his job as chief of staff?
LIASSON: No, no. It doesn't really matter what Kelly's own personal views are on the Civil War or anything else. The job of the chief of staff is to represent the president's thinking, push his agenda. That's what Kelly is doing. Whether this controversy will affect his ability inside the White House - I think it won't because it's important to note that Kelly is not just respected inside the White House. He is revered.
As you said, he has moral authority from being a Gold Star father, from a lifetime of public service. But part of being a White House chief of staff is being a political adviser to the president. And I talked to several Republicans today who are questioning whether it's smart politics to start a debate about the origins of the Civil War.
M. KELLY: Right. And as we know, President Trump does not like to be outshone by his staffers when it comes to news coverage - so lots to watch there at the White House. That's NPR's Mara Liasson watching it from the White House. Thanks a lot.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.