President Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly on Monday reinserted himself into political discourse with an appearance on the debut of Laura Ingraham’s new Fox News show, reigniting debate over statues that commemorate the Confederacy and drawing scrutiny to how the administration views the dark history of slavery in the U.S.
The retired Marine general praised Confederate general Robert E. Lee in response to a question about a Virginia church’s decision to remove a plaque that honors Lee and George Washington. And he said a lack of compromise led to the United States Civil War.
He told Ingraham:
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“I would tell you that Robert E. Lee was an honorable man. He was a man that gave up his country to fight for his state, which 150 years ago was more important than country. It was always loyalty to state first back in those days. Now it’s different today. But 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.”
Critics saw Kelly as applying the “both sides” argument to the U.S.’s bloodiest conflict just as Trump used it to reference neo-Nazis at the racially-charged rally in Charlottesville, Va. in August where they violently clashed with counter-protesters.
When Kelly was appointed Trump’s chief of staff in July, he was expected to bring military discipline to the West Wing, but his comments on Monday were the second time this month that he’s stepped into the political fracas. In mid-October, he held a rare press briefing in which he defended the president’s condolence calls to the families of fallen military members and—in doing so—misrepresented remarks by Rep. Frederica Wilson (D–Fla.). Kelly told Ingraham on Monday that he would “never” apologize to Wilson, implying that there was nothing to apologize for.
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Kelly made his comments about Lee and the Civil War as part of a larger discussion of how Americans today view events of the past. “I think we make a mistake, though, and as a society and certainly as individuals, when we take what is today accepted as right and wrong and go back 100, 200, 300 years or more and say what those, you know, what Christopher Columbus did was wrong,” Kelly said. “You know, 500 years later, it’s inconceivable to me that you would take what we think now and apply it back then.”