- White House chief of staff John Kelly has come under fire for his defense of Rob Porter, who resigned as White House staff secretary Wednesday after his two ex-wives publicly accused him of domestic abuse.
- Trump administration officials are reportedly “in disbelief” at Kelly’s defense of the staffer, and lawmakers are demanding he explain himself or resign.
- Kelly, along with the FBI, apparently knew of the allegations against Porter months ago.
- Once a respected voice of reason in the White House, the credibility Kelly once held in the administration has plunged.
In the wake of White House staff secretary Rob Porter’s resignation on Wednesday amid multiple accusations of domestic abuse, White House chief of staff John Kelly has found himself ensnared in the mounting scandal.
A growing chorus of West Wing staffers and Republicans have begun to question why he came out to bat for Porter – and whether Kelly had known about the allegations against him.
At first, Kelly defended Porter after his second ex-wife Jennifer Willoughby accused him of emotional and physical abuse.
Kelly called Porter “a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”
On Wednesday, Porter’s first ex-wife Colbie Holderness came out with accusations of her own against Porter that included domestic battery and verbal abuse on their honeymoon. She backed up her claims with a photo of a black eye she said Porter gave her.
Kelly, who had worked closely with Porter for several months, then issued a statement speaking out against domestic abuse in general without specifically condemning Porter himself.
“I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter,” Kelly said. “There is no place for domestic violence in our society.”
But several White House officials are reportedly doubting Kelly’s judgment in the case, and questioning why Kelly has emerged as a defender of some of the administration’s most controversial issues.
“It’s beyond disbelief,” one former White House official told Vanity Fair. “Everyone is trying to figure out why Kelly is leading the charge to save him.”
A Republican close to the administration was also confused.
“How many times has Kelly put out a statement defending Trump?” that person told the magazine.
Kelly was reportedly aware of a protective order against Porter
Although Porter was not someone who was widely recognized outside the White House, he had become an increasingly powerful figure in the West Wing.
He was responsible for controlling all the documents that got to President Donald Trump’s desk, including classified information.
But Porter never got a permanent security clearance to handle this sort of information, and the reason was directly related to his alleged abuse, The Atlantic reported.
During a press conference on Thursday, White House Principal Deputy Secretary Raj Shah, who called the allegations against Porter “serious and disturbing,” said Porter’s background check had not yet been finished while he was serving in the Oval Office.
“[Porter’s] background investigation was ongoing he was operating on a limited security clearance. His clearance was never denied, and he resigned,” Shah said.
In 2010, Porter was handed a protection order against him as a result of his wives’ allegations, which Kelly was well aware of, one senior member of the administration told Politico. Although Kelly had considered pressuring Porter to leave his role, according to that official, he never did.
A muddled White House response
Shah told reporters that Kelly had only become “fully aware” of the allegations against Porter on Wednesday, and that he had chosen to defend Porter on Tuesday based on his personal interactions with the staff secretary.
He also implied that Kelly and Trump were unconvinced by the claims about Porter’s misconduct until photographic evidence emerged corroborating it on Wednesday, because they believed Porter when he denied the accusations.
Shah did admit that the White House could have been handled the situation better.
“I think it’s fair to say that we all could have done better over the last few days in dealing with the situation,” he said, “but this was a Rob Porter that many of us dealt with, and the emerging reports were not reflective of the individual we had come to know.”
The FBI, which vetted Porter before he took on his White House role, was also aware of the abuse allegations after both Willoughby and Holderness informed them of Porter’s behavior, according to The Intercept.
Despite Shah’s insistence the Trump “maintains full confidence” in Kelly, a report by Vanity Fair indicates that Trump had become furious with members of his staff after the severity of the Porter allegations became clear.
Kelly isn’t the only one in hot water, according to the report – his advisers Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and communications director Hope Hicks, who is reportedly dating Porter, have also drawn the president’s ire.
Calls are growing for Kelly to resign
- Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Soon after the revelations about Kelly’s knowledge of Porter’s alleged abuse surfaced, numerous lawmakers have stepped forward to call on the retired general to resign.
Democratic Sen. John Tester said if Kelly can’t explain his inaction on the issue, he does not deserve to serve in the White House.
“If John Kelly is covering this up, he needs to be held accountable,” Tester told CNN on Thursday. “He better have a really good reason. Otherwise, he’s gone, too.”
Four House Democrats penned a letter to Kelly on Thursday, saying they were “troubled” by the media reports about his lack of action on Porter, and demanded that he explain how much he knew about Porter, and when.
“Everything about these troubling reports violates American moral values, ethical principles, and core tenants of national security,” the letter read. “It is imperative that Congress and the American people construct a clear timeline of events in order to preserve the integrity of the Office of the President.”
Republican Sen. Mark Meadows of North Carolina, meanwhile, said he thought Kelly’s job was safe for now.
“I don’t see the confidence in Gen. Kelly being diminished within the West Wing,” he told Politico. “But we can have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior.”
General under fire
Kelly’s response to the Porter allegations came on the heels of another slip-up.
On Tuesday, Kelly argued against an extension of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, saying children of undocumented immigrants should have registered during the Obama administration were “too lazy to get off their asses.”
He repeated the comments to the press even after Democrats berated him for the statement in a private session, CNN reported. Some have gone as far to accuse Kelly of playing on derogatory stereotypes about immigrants in his statement.
In January, Trump tamped down rumors that he was looking for a new chief of staff after Kelly told Fox News that Trump “changed his attitude” toward his long-promised wall after being told by experts that there were places along the US-Mexico border where “a wall would not be realistic.”
Kelly became Trump’s chief of staff in July, following a chaotic series of staff departures that included the ousting of Kelly’s predecessor Reince Priebus, the resignation of press secretary Sean Spicer, and the firing of communications director Anthony Scaramucci.
Kelly routes the president’s calls through him first, and Trump’s friends have to make official appointments to visit the Oval Office.
His move from homeland security secretary to White House chief of staff was part of a push to enact order in the West Wing, where Trump was accustomed to accepting spontaneous, freewheeling meetings and phone calls.