The former White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, on Wednesday declined to answer questions about the existence of a memo he wrote saying that President Trump had ordered officials to give his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a security clearance in May 2018.
Mr. Kelly also broke with Mr. Trump on key aspects of his approach to immigration and the NATO alliance, and said that his top concern about decisions made by the president was whether they were objectively right for the country when divorced from political concerns.
Mr. Kelly, who kept his voice level during a 90-minute question-and-answer session at Duke University, would not specifically address Mr. Kushner’s clearance being ordered by Mr. Trump, which The New York Times reported last week.
“I couldn’t — and I’m not dodging — I couldn’t comment on that for a couple of reasons,” Mr. Kelly said, citing clearances being among the things that he could not discuss, and that conversations with the president “at that level would certainly” be kept confidential under executive privilege.
Asked specifically about whether he had ever created memos for the record, Mr. Kelly said, “I’d prefer not to talk about that.”
Mr. Trump ordered the chief of staff to get Mr. Kushner a clearance after it stalled for most of the first half of the president’s term over concerns from the F.B.I. and career security officials about Mr. Kushner’s personal foreign contacts, as well as those related to his family’s real-estate business.
Mr. Trump has the legal authority to overrule recommendations from security clearance officials. But his action added to ongoing questions about how people obtained them, and it contradicted a statement at the time from Mr. Kushner’s lawyer that his clearance went through a normal process. And the president himself asserted to The Times in an Oval Office interview in January that he had not directed Mr. Kelly or anyone else to grant a clearance.
Over all, Mr. Kelly said, his 18 months as the chief of staff were the “least” favorite job he had held, but the most important. He acknowledged that his colleagues in the Marine Corps, where he served as a four-star general, might not like hearing that.
However, Mr. Kelly said, during that time, Mr. Trump “went from a guy who didn’t know how the system works” to one “who understands how it works.”
Mr. Kelly, who left at the end of December, also made clear he did not consider himself working for Mr. Trump, but doing his civic duty to serve. If Hillary Clinton had won, he said, he probably would have worked for her as well.
Mr. Kelly defended the utility of the NATO alliance, which Mr. Trump has often criticized as an unfair financial drain on the United States.
On a wall at the border with Mexico, Mr. Kelly said that there were specific areas where it could be effective but constructing one “from sea to shining sea” was a “waste of money.”
The issuance of the zero-tolerance policy for border crossings that resulted in family separations “came as a surprise” to him and to other officials, Mr. Kelly said, defending his replacement as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, from criticism. He appeared to place most of the blame on the former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who announced the policy.
Of people crossing the border who are apprehended, Mr. Kelly contradicted the president. “They’re overwhelmingly not criminals — they’re people coming up here for economic” purposes. Mr. Trump has regularly portrayed immigrants crossing at the southern border as dangerous lawbreakers.
He also joked wryly about the advice he gave his successor, Mick Mulvaney: “Run for it,” Mr. Kelly said, to laughter. On a serious note, he said, he told him the chief of staff’s job was to tell the president “what he needs to hear.”