The furor over spousal abuse allegations that forced the resignation of one of President Donald Trump’s top advisers last week has exposed fissures within the White House that had been papered over since John Kelly took over last summer as chief of staff with a mandate to end the dysfunction.
Aides to the president said they remained confused and upset over the handling of the accusations against Rob Porter, the staff secretary who stepped down. Days after his departure, the White House was still struggling Sunday to provide a consistent explanation of who knew what and when, even as questions swirled about whether anyone might be felled as a result.
While said to be frustrated with Kelly over this and other issues, Trump sought this weekend to tamp down talk that he would be pushed out, instructing an aide scheduled to appear on television to report that the president still had confidence in his chief of staff. But other advisers to Trump maintained that his staff had let him down and that someone else should be held accountable.
“I spoke to the president last night,” Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to Trump, told Jake Tapper on Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “I told him I would be with you today. And he said, ‘Please tell Jake that I have full faith in Chief of Staff John Kelly and that I’m not actively searching for replacements.’ He said: ‘I saw that all over the news today. I have faith in him.'”
Kelly privately told colleagues at the White House on Friday that he was willing to resign over his handling of Porter’s case if Trump desired, but presidential aides said no resignation was formally offered or drafted. If not “actively” searching, Trump has informally sounded out associates about possible replacements, including Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the House majority leader.
“Clearly, there was a breakdown in process,” former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, an informal adviser to the president, said on “This Week” on ABC. Asked if someone should pay the price, Christie said, “That’s going to be up to the president ultimately about whether or not he views this as such a failure of competence in terms of the management that he needs to bring someone else in.”
As the outcry stretched into a new week, the president and his staff were divided in describing the episode’s import. Trump has expressed sympathy for Porter and none for the two ex-wives who have accused him of physically abusing them. Despite photographs showing one of the women with a black eye, Trump on Friday emphasized that Porter had protested his innocence, and on Saturday he complained that a “mere allegation” could ruin someone without due process.
But his aides fanned out to talk shows Sunday to stress that domestic abuse is unacceptable, adding that Porter had lied to them and deserved to be pushed out. They insisted that the president was disturbed by the charges against Porter and was sympathetic toward women who had been abused. “I have no reason not to believe the women,” Conway said.
Mulvaney, the budget director, said Trump may have been thinking of his friend, the deposed casino mogul Steve Wynn, when he posted his Saturday tweet. But in any case, Mulvaney said that the handling of Porter’s situation was “completely reasonable and normal” and that it was natural to give “the benefit of the doubt” to a colleague until more evidence was available.
“That’s what the president did up until the time that it became obvious, when the photographs came out, that the person was not being honest with the president,” Mulvaney said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “After that happened, we dismissed that person immediately.”
As for potentially replacing Kelly, he disavowed interest in his post. “I don’t want that job,” said Mulvaney, who in addition to leading the budget office is the acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. “I love the job — jobs — that I have now.” Moreover, he said, Trump remains satisfied with Kelly. “The problem here was with Mr. Porter, not with the chief of staff.”
The image of a White House at cross purposes was reinforced at another point in the interview when Mulvaney said that if he were still a congressman, he most likely would not have voted for the two-year budget deal that Trump just signed into law, a comment that angered others in the White House.
“Probably not,” he said. “But keep in mind, I’m not Congressman Mick Mulvaney anymore.” Instead, as budget director, he said his job “is to try to get the president’s agenda passed.”
Trump, who is scheduled to sign a bill Wednesday aimed at protecting young people from sexual abuse, remained silent on Porter’s case on Sunday. However, in a seeming nod to the matter, he complained that not enough attention was being paid to his accomplishments.
“So many positive things going on for the U.S.A. and the Fake News Media just doesn’t want to go there,” he wrote on Twitter. “Same negative stories over and over again! No wonder the People no longer trust the media, whose approval ratings are correctly at their lowest levels in history!”
The White House was informed last year that Porter’s security clearance was being held up, but that did not set off sufficient alarm bells for any action to be taken. Even when reporters called the White House press office roughly three weeks ago asking about Porter’s divorces and whether they had affected his security clearance, that did not stir concern, according to two people familiar with the calls.
When White House officials learned last week that The Daily Mail would publish an article about allegations by the ex-wives, Hope Hicks, the communications director, who had been dating Porter, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, approached Kelly about a statement in support of him, according to two people briefed on the events. Kelly, who had been on Capitol Hill much of the day, agreed to have a statement issued in his name describing the charges as “vile.”
Nonetheless, the people briefed on the discussions said, Kelly told Porter at some point later that evening that he needed to resign. Porter agreed. It was not issued as a clear order, but it was understood that Porter would go, according to the two people briefed on the discussions. Porter has offered a different version of events, telling associates that he was initially urged to stay on and fight, including by Kelly.
Either way, Porter arrived at work Wednesday morning and told Kelly that he was reconsidering stepping down, according to the two people briefed. Kelly again said Porter needed to leave, the people said. Porter agreed and told colleagues that he planned to resign without setting a departure date so he could help with the transition. He maintained to colleagues that his ex-wives were making up their stories of abuse and that while he was flawed, he was not physically abusive.
The official line remained that Porter had made the choice to leave on his own and was not asked. Sanders, whose briefing materials take hours to prepare and whose official statements are agreed to in advance by senior aides, said from the briefing room lectern that Kelly and Trump still had full confidence in Porter.
At various points, officials have said it was the publication of the photographs that changed their calculation. “The photographs took everybody by surprise,” Mulvaney said.
Kelly was persuaded to issue a second statement expressing shock, and White House officials made clear that Porter would be gone the next day. But Thursday morning, Porter was still in his office, clearing out his things, and had to be nudged to leave.
Porter has told associates that he had informed White House officials last year that he had two ex-wives who, he said, had manufactured claims about him. Other officials said he described messy and complicated divorces, but offered no specific details. Two West Wing officials said Porter had offered conflicting portraits of his marriages. One official said he at first discussed one divorce, and then two. Initially, he said that he had been verbally abusive but that his wives had been too.
While Kelly and Porter have been characterized as close allies, some White House officials said over the weekend that that was exaggerated. Kelly found Porter competent and did not want to find someone new, one official said, but he never entirely trusted Porter, in part because Kelly’s longtime deputy, Kirstjen Nielsen, was not a fan of his.
Nielsen has since left the White House to become secretary of Homeland Security. Her absence and Kelly’s reluctance to trust and promote people he does not know well have also been cited in some of the chaos surrounding Porter. Nielsen frequently blocked and tackled for the chief of staff, making herself the main line of approach to him. Without her, officials often approach Kelly freely now, and he sometimes does not remember what he has said to different people, two officials said.
Marc Short, the White House legislative director, acknowledged on Sunday that the process had not worked well.
“There’s been a rash of sexual harassment investigations, including at your own network, that you later come back and say there are things we could have done better to prevent it,” he said on “Meet the Press” on NBC. “I think the White House will go through that same experience.”