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The concrete border wall that President Trump has repeatedly called for as a signature campaign promise is not actually a wall and has not been since “early on in the administration,” the outgoing White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, said in an interview published on Sunday.

The comments further muddy the administration’s position as Mr. Trump demands that Democrats provide $5 billion in funding for a wall on the southwestern border with Mexico, an impasse that has led to a partial government shutdown after the president abruptly pulled out of a compromise deal to keep the government funded through February. They were also notable given Mr. Trump’s insistence for most of his term that the border would have a wall, not the “steel slat barrier” he has pivoted toward in the past few weeks.

“To be honest, it’s not a wall,” Mr. Kelly told The Los Angeles Times.

Mr. Kelly, whose last day in his role is Monday, said he had sought advice from Customs and Border Protection officials early in 2017, when he was the homeland security secretary. Mr. Kelly said he was told that “we need a physical barrier in certain places, we need technology across the board, and we need more people.”

He went on: “The president still says ‘wall’ — oftentimes frankly he’ll say ‘barrier’ or ‘fencing,’ now he’s tended toward steel slats. But we left a solid concrete wall early on in the administration, when we asked people what they needed and where they needed it.”

Mr. Kelly has clashed with Mr. Trump over the nature of the wall before. When Mr. Kelly said earlier this year on Fox News that Mr. Trump’s views on a border wall were not “fully informed” and had “evolved,” the president was enraged and berated him.

“The Wall is the Wall, it has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter a short time later.

Mr. Kelly is leaving after a 17-month tenure that he described to the paper as a “bone-crushing hard job.” Mr. Kelly was known to tell aides that he had the “worst job in the world,” and frequently told people that Mr. Trump was not up to role of president, according to two former administration officials.

In the Los Angeles Times interview, Mr. Kelly conceded that Mr. Trump often pressed against the legal boundaries of his role, as the former secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, said recently.

The president would ask things like, “‘Why can’t we do it this way?’” Mr. Kelly said.

But Mr. Kelly said the president never ordered him to do anything against the law, and that he would have quit if that had happened.

Mr. Kelly has been criticized for failing to change the mercurial, Twitter-reliant president into someone more conventional and willing to adhere to norms.

But in his Los Angeles Times interview, Mr. Kelly suggested his tenure should be judged on the actions that Mr. Trump did not engage in, as opposed to the ones he did. Mr. Kelly has been credited by supporters with slowing or stopping the president from a number of his impulses, such as pulling out of NATO.

Mr. Kelly refrained from lobbing shots at other officials on his way out — except for one.

He bluntly faulted Jeff Sessions, the attorney general who was fired, for the “zero tolerance” border policy that led to separations of migrant children from their parents.

“What happened was Jeff Sessions, he was the one that instituted the zero-tolerance process on the border that resulted in both people being detained and the family separation,” Mr. Kelly said. “He surprised us.”

Enforcement of the policy was the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security, which by then was led by Mr. Kelly’s protégée, Kirstjen Nielsen. Ms. Nielsen became the face of the policy, which prompted outrage from Democrats and many Republicans, and she has been a target of the president’s ire.

Privately, White House officials have long said Mr. Kelly exacerbated Mr. Trump’s disdain for Mr. Sessions — with whom the president was angry for recusing himself from overseeing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign — because it redirected the president from his frustration with Ms. Nielsen.

Mr. Kelly, who was Mr. Trump’s chief of staff when the House Republicans lost their majority in the midterm elections this year, said he had made clear to the president that the “last thing” he needed was a political aide in that job. Mr. Trump has named Mick Mulvaney, his budget director and a former congressman, as acting chief of staff while he searches for a permanent replacement.

Mr. Kelly’s lack of interest in and knowledge about politics has been cited by senior Republicans as problematic.

He acknowledged being unprepared for Mr. Trump’s order to impose a travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries in the first two weeks of the administration, despite saying publicly that he had not been surprised. But he also bluntly sought to dispel the oft-repeated notion that the president had not been given information before making decisions. Mr. Trump gets a variety of information, Mr. Kelly said, but goes with his instincts anyway.

“It’s never been: The president just wants to make a decision based on no knowledge and ignorance,” Mr. Kelly said. “You may not like his decision, but at least he was fully informed on the impact.”

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