Wednesday, January 23News That Matters

John Kelly is on thin ice

White House staffers have become increasingly frustrated with chief of staff John Kelly for his role in the ongoing Rob Porter scandal, the Washington Post reported Tuesday evening.

The report, which cites people with knowledge of the situation, indicates that a “growing number of aides” in the West Wing have started blaming Kelly for his “bungled handling of the allegations” against former staff secretary Porter, who has been accused by two ex-wives of domestic abuse. President Donald Trump has reportedly “begun musing about possible replacements” as well, according to the Post.

Some of the staffers reportedly believe that Kelly, a retired Marine general, purposely “misled” them about the Porter allegations.

“[He’s] a big fat liar,” one anonymous official said. “To put it in terms the general would understand, his handling of the Porter scandal amounts to dereliction of duty.”

The controversy first began back on February 6, after the Daily Mail published accounts by Porter’s first and second wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, who claimed that he had been verbally, emotionally, and physically abusive during their respective marriages years earlier, long before Porter was appointed staff secretary. Porter, who had been operating on an interim security clearance, resigned his post in the immediate aftermath of that report.

Initially, Kelly swatted down the allegations, praising Porter as “a man of true integrity and honor.” According to Axios, he also counseled Porter to “stay and fight” amid the controversy. However, after Holderness produced photo evidence of a black eye she says Porter gave her, which was published by The Intercept, Kelly reversed course, claiming he had not been aware of the allegations previously.

Later reports proved that was untrue: according to FBI Director Christopher Wray, whose agency was tasked with carrying out the top secret clearance investigation on Porter, the staff secretary’s background check was completed in July 2017, long before the domestic abuse allegations went public. The case was “administratively closed” in January. The White House security office — which is run by deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin — reportedly reviewed the full allegations in November, according to the New York Times, but had still not decided whether to grant Porter security clearance at the time of his resignation.

The Post reported this week that Kelly, knowing these things, had relayed a version of events to White House staff, including press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, that “many believed to be false.” White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah then presented that version of events to the press, recounting Kelly’s initial claim that he had not been aware of the full extent of the allegations until Holderness’ photo was published.

Kelly has continued to argue that the White House did nothing wrong in its response to the allegations.

The back and forth drama has led some to believe that Kelly’s days in the West Wing are numbered. According to the Post, the president has considered replacing Kelly with Economic Council director Gary Cohn or House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), in the wake of the scandal. (McCarthy himself has claimed he is not up for the White House position, telling reporters on Wednesday, “There is no opening.”)

But publicly, the White House is standing by him.

“The president has confidence in his chief of staff,” Sanders said on Tuesday, following a week of controversy.

That may not mean much in Trump’s world: if Kelly does find himself on the chopping block in the coming days, he’d be closely following a pattern laid out by numerous former White House staffers, cabinet members, and Trump administration officials before him — some of whom still had the president’s “confidence” up until their final few hours in the administration.

Michael Flynn, former national security adviser

CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser and campaign surrogate, was forced to resign last February after it was revealed that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his communications with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

Initially, the White House stood by Flynn, with counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway claiming in an interview with MSNBC that Flynn “enjoy[ed] the full confidence of the president.” When asked why Trump had not personally issued such a statement, Conway added, “You should read nothing into that. I mean, he’s just not going to respond to every screaming headline.”

Seven hours later, Flynn resigned. He has since pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and is reportedly cooperating with investigators working on Russia investigation.

Reince Priebus, former chief of staff

CREDIT: Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Kelly’s predecessor did not enjoy the same level of loyalty as other White House staffers, but even his departure in late July was shrouded in doublespeak.

“We all serve at the pleasure of the president, and if [Priebus] gets to a place where that isn’t the case, he’ll let you know,” Sanders said at the time. “Unlike previous administrations, this isn’t groupthink. We all have a chance to come and voice those ideas, voice those perspectives and have a lot of healthy competition, and with that competition, you usually get the best results. The president likes that kind of competition and encourages it.”

One day later, Priebus was fired.

Steve Bannon, former chief strategist

CREDIT: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Bannon, who previously served as Trump’s chief campaign executive, enjoyed strong support from the president early on, but the relationship later deteriorated, culminating in controversy, after Trump — on Bannon’s advice — reacted to a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which one woman was killed, by saying “both sides” were to blame for the incident.

On August 18, Bannon confirmed to Circa that he had given the White House his resignation two weeks earlier. Two days prior, Trump himself had dodged questions about the chief strategist’s status within the White House, telling reporters, “He [Bannon] is a good person. He actually gets very unfair press in that regard. But we’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon.”

James Comey, former FBI director

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Comey, the controversial FBI director who’s found himself at odds with the Trump administration over the bureau’s special counsel investigation into possible Russian collusion, was initially given a vote of confidence before being fired and publicly excoriated six days later, on May 9, 2017.

“The president has confidence in the director,” then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer said, in a briefing on May 3.

Days later, Comey — who was out of the office, paying a visit to FBI agents in California at the time — was informed via news reports that he had been dismissed by the White House, which claimed he had lost the FBI’s support. (That claim later turned out to be false.)