Turbulence in this West Wing is typically generated by President Donald Trump, but for the past week, it’s been chief of staff John Kelly—the man brought in to be a steadying hand—who’s inspiring what one White House official described as a crisis of confidence.
While the president often makes a hash of the truth, aides took Kelly’s word at face value until they were confronted with zigzagging accounts of the events leading up to former staff secretary Rob Porter’s resignation—and Kelly’s role in them.
In the hours immediately after the Daily Mail published a photograph of Porter’s first ex-wife with a black eye, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders hastily arranged an off-the-record meeting in the West Wing with Porter and four reporters: the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Axios’ Jonathan Swan, and the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Bender. In that meeting, which hasn’t previously reported, Porter relayed his version of events and fielded questions from the group.
Kelly told staff two days later that once he’d been briefed on allegations of abuse against Porter by his two ex-wives, “he was gone 40 minutes later.”
The White House declined to comment on Porter’s meeting with reporters, including whether or not Kelly was aware it took place. But two White House officials said the mixed messages are symptomatic of the extent to which the White House has left Kelly to shoulder the blame for the Porter mess.
The president took the time over the weekend to tweet, seemingly in Porter’s defense, about “due process,” but Trump’s only statement of support for Kelly—who was left to personally deny rumors he’d offered to resign Friday—has been through presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, who told ABC’s “This Week” that the president wasn’t “actively” looking for a new chief.
“It’s almost mission impossible here for a lot of different reasons,” said historian Chris Whipple. “His credibility was already really seriously damaged going all the way back to his appearance behind the podium in the WH briefing room. Now I think his credibility is really beyond repair and moreover, very few people will really believe he’s really speaking for the president.”
Kelly’s defenders agree he has an impossible task but say he has a clear-eyed view of the president he serves and does the job out of a sense of duty. With few real confidants inside the West Wing — and no principal deputy to help him run the White House — the retired Marine general finds himself increasingly isolated inside the West Wing.
Kelly was aware weeks before the Daily Mail story that Porter’s background check had turned up red flags — though not the full extent of the abuse — but Porter never rose to the top of his list of problems to deal with.
In an undisciplined, chaotic White House, Porter was universally respected and highly regarded throughout other staffers and by Trump himself.
The rollercoaster of events surrounding his departure reveals the extent to which wishful thinking about a competent and trusted aide rather than a hard-headed assessment of uncomfortable facts polluted the process Kelly himself worked with Porter to establish—a process that, as a result, failed him when it came to dealing with Porter’s personal situation.
“I think people underestimate how critical that role is, the role of staff secretary,” said a former George W. Bush administration official. Kelly, this official added, “had a good staff secretary and he didn’t want to have to deal with it.”
By contrast, Kelly had no compunction getting rid of other White House aides, most of whom were obviously less qualified than Porter for their jobs. The process began the moment he arrived in the West Wing last year when he fired communications director Anthony Scaramucci on July 31, his first day as White House chief of staff, days after Scaramucci gave the New Yorker an expletive-laced interview that triggered the abrupt ouster of Reince Priebus and Kelly’s own appointment.
Kelly also terminated “badge access” to the White House for the president’s onetime campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who had never worked at the White House in the first place.
And in December, he dismissed the former director of the Office of Public Liaison, Omarosa Manigault, who had been using the White House car service — known as “CARPET” — as an office pick-up and drop-off service, something strictly forbidden by the federal government, according to three administration officials.
After Kelly dismissed her, Manigault tried to storm the White House residence to appeal to Trump, according to one of the officials, accidentally tripping an electronic Secret Service wire that monitors entry and egress from the residence.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment about Manigault’s departure.
Kelly has, meanwhile, failed to resolve the underlying issues preventing the Trump administration from developing a pipeline of new recruits as the first wave of hires begin to leave.
The administration continues to impose the ideological litmus test that kept out many Trump critics during the presidential transition, particularly in the realm of national security. A second former Bush administration official said that he had recommended a job candidate to the White House within the past month who had criticized the president during the campaign and was told that the prospect of hiring the candidate remained a “non-starter.”
And experienced officials continue to leave. On Friday, the Justice Department’s third-ranking official, Rachel Brand, resigned her post to join the private sector. She badly wanted to avoid overseeing the Russia investigation, according to two people familiar with her thinking – a post she would have assumed had the president moved to fire her boss, deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein.
Brand is joining Walmart, where she will become the head of global governance. The retail behemoth began courting her around the time Trump began making noises that he might fire Rosenstein. “You figure that one out,” Trump told reporters in early February when asked whether he was considering firing Rosenstein.
Kelly’s own office is a microcosm of the personnel issues facing the administration. Though the White House interviewed Texas congressman Michael McCaul to replace Kelly at the Department of Homeland Security, it quickly became clear he was not up to the job, and Kelly wound up sacrificing his own trusted deputy, Kirstjen Nielsen, giving up his closest confidante in the administration
The White House on Friday dispatched Jim Carroll, who had been unofficially serving as Kelly’s deputy, to run the Office of National Drug Control Policy after Kelly privately expressed disappointment in his performance.
Late last week and throughout the weekend, Kelly was consulting constantly with a close circle of advisers, including Nielsen, sounding them out about how – or whether – to respond to claims that he had misled the news media about his response to the Porter allegations. But he still lacks a trusted deputy who can help him run the White House, though he promoted to senior adviser on Friday his onetime military assistant, Zach Fuentes, who has served as his gatekeeper since Nielsen’s departure.
Kelly was hardly alone in his willingness to take Porter’s word at face value, even in the face of multiple news reporters and on-record accounts of abuse.
“It was one of those sort of moments where people just said that ‘you’re kidding me,’" Priebus continued. “‘It can’t, it can’t, we’re not talking about Rob Porter, are we? The Eagle Scout, Rhodes scholar, Harvard undergrad?’”
Sanders said Monday that Porter had been working on an interim clearance because his background check was ongoing. “This is a process that doesn’t operate within the White House. It’s handled by our law enforcement and intelligence community and we support that process,” she said.”
The FBI conducts background checks on presidential appointees seeking top-level security clearances but does not make a recommendation about whether the appointee should receive a clearance or not – it simply delivers its findings to the White House, which has an office that itself determines whether to grant permanent clearances to its appointees, according to officials and lawyers familiar with the process.
“My experience is that interim access typically is not extended beyond nine months at most. That isn’t to say it can’t be longer, but for rank and file officials it usually is not permitted,” said Bradley Moss, an attorney who specializes in national security and clearance law. “If the investigation has taken that long, and they still haven’t favorably adjudicated the person’s clearance, it typically means red flags have shown up in the vetting.”
At Monday’s White House briefing, Sanders tried to clean up the White House’s timeline of the events surrounding Porter’s departure. “We had learned of this situation involving Rob Porter last Tuesday evening, and within 24 hours, his resignation had been accepted and announced,” Sanders said. “We announced a transition was going to happen, and within hours, it did.”
She declined to defend Kelly’s earlier statement, saying: “In terms of timeline, I don’t have anything else to add.”