As some White House aides privately excoriated scandal-racked John Kelly last weekend, a Republican senator put the question directly to Donald Trump during a phone call: Is he standing behind his embattled chief of staff?
“100 percent,” the president replied, according to the senator, who relayed the exchange on condition of anonymity. The senator, a fan of Kelly’s, had called Trump in part to get clarity on the chief of staff’s future.
As the crisis over the White House’s handling of domestic abuse allegations against former Trump aide Rob Porter dragged into a ninth day, Kelly’s standing has cratered among White House staff. The crisis has been fueled by media coverage indicating Kelly misled colleagues and reporters about what he knew about Porter — and when he moved to fire him.
But the backbiting within the West Wing has alarmed Republican lawmakers, interviews with more than a half-dozen of them Wednesday showed. They see Kelly as one of the few stabilizing forces of a White House in constant disarray, and are loath to lose him.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) went on TV on Tuesday to urge the White House to take a stronger line against domestic abuse allegations. But she said in an interview that her remarks weren’t aimed at Kelly and urged him to fight for his job.
Kelly "is a pretty extraordinary person. But obviously there were some things that were overlooked that should not be" about Porter, said Ernst, who wants stricter scrutiny of security clearances within the White House. She added that the embattled chief of staff “has brought some semblance of order into the White House.”
Asked whether he had confidence in Kelly, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) replied: “Yes. And I don’t know that there’s an alternative.”
But there are plenty of people in the White House looking for one. Late last week, aides felt misled by Kelly’s account of Porter’s resignation as staff secretary after he told White House staffers he moved to fire Porter 40 minutes after he was fully briefed on the allegations. But some also said they felt he was tacitly asking them to mislead others regarding the timeline of Porter’s ouster.
In the communications shop, there is a broad sense of frustration that staffers tasked with setting the story straight in the news media still haven’t been given a complete and transparent accounting of events.
Initially, Kelly and other White House officials stood behind Porter after he was accused of domestic violence. A day later, Kelly said he was “shocked” by the allegations, though one official said Kelly was aware of a protective order against Porter from his first wife.
One senior White House aide rattled off a series of questions he felt his superiors, including Kelly, still had not answered to his satisfaction. Ironically, it’s a concern shared far more broadly by Capitol Hill Democrats than Republicans.
“The fact pattern does not match with the word competence,” Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said of Kelly. “If this proves to be the picture we think it is? He’s gotta go.”
“They’ve got a big mess over there,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who declined to call for Kelly to resign or be fired.
Kelly himself has always kept a tight circle inside the White House, and though the building began to function better after he arrived last July, morale among West Wing aides did not appreciably improve. Republican allies on the Hill, however, have appreciated Kelly’s attempts to restrict access to the president and impose order amid the chaos.
“I’d certainly like to see him stay in the White House,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). “He’s just a man of integrity, and he’s doing a great job.”
Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.), who’s known Kelly for years, said he stopped watching the news because he feels the coverage is “overkill” and unfair to the chief.
“I don’t want to see Gen. Kelly go,” Rooney said. “You’re talking about one of the greatest men I have met in my entire life.”
Since the departure of his principal deputy, Kirstjen Nielsen, for the Department of Homeland Security in early December, Kelly has relied chiefly on Zach Fuentes, his onetime military aide, to serve as counselor and gatekeeper. But otherwise — within the White House — he is largely alone.
Kelly has clearly alienated some of those who used to enjoy a lot more face time with the president, including former campaign aides, like Corey Lewandowski, as well as longtime friends and family.
“There a lot of people whose access and influence have diminished. And they don’t like him,” said the GOP senator who spoke to Trump over the weekend.
Casting a pall over the whole series of events is an overriding sense of despair that has White House staffers feeling uncomfortable not only that somebody with Porter’s background had been working in their midst, but that his dismissal has been handled without much integrity.
“They got rid of him because they got caught,” said a senior White House aide.
But Kelly is seen by many congressional Republicans as a steady hand in an administration filled with less experienced officials than previous White House staffs. So even with the daily drip of stories about his handling of Porter, congressional Republicans say Kelly should stay.
“They’ve made a two-day news story into a week-and-a-half news story,” said Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho). “Sometimes you screw up. We all screw up! And sometimes you’ve got to say, ‘Hey, yeah, we could have done this better.’”
Rachael Bade contributed to this report.