- Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
- The Rob Porter scandal has shaken the White House.
- It appears as if knives are out for the chief of staff, John Kelly.
- Many questions remain about who knew what – and when – about Porter, the former White House staff secretary whom two ex-wives have accused of physical and emotional abuse.
- The White House acknowledged it could’ve handled its response to the episode better.
The latest White House scandal has snowballed into an avalanche, roiling some of the highest-ranking and most prominent West Wing staffers in the process.
The White House initially stood by its staff secretary, Rob Porter, after he was accused of physically and emotionally abusing his two ex-wives, one of whom released photos of a black eye she says he gave her. Publicly, the administration even offered rare contrition for its handling of the situation.
“I think it’s fair to say that we all could have done better over the last few hours – or last few days – in dealing with this situation,” said Raj Shah, a White House deputy press secretary.
But questions abounded about who knew what – and when – as the White House fumbled its response.
The focus now lies on Porter’s inability to obtain a full security clearance and on when the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, and other top officials were first made aware of the allegations, which Porter has denied.
Porter’s exit on Wednesday means one of the most powerful members of the West Wing inner circle tasked with a broad range of critical responsibilities – and whom one Republican strategist labeled “indispensable” – will need to be replaced.
Kelly’s enemies now want ‘to get rid of him’
Porter and Kelly clearly saw eye to eye on how to run the White House. But as knives start to come out for Kelly, the chance that this scandal could knock out both the forces that many credit with bringing a sense of stability to the administration is growing.
Kelly’s “kind of on the hook now already, given the controversies from this week,” Matt Mackowiak, the Republican strategist who founded the Potomac Strategy Group, told Business Insider. “I think the story is bad; a lot of his enemies are using it against him to try to get rid of him.”
Mackowiak said those adversaries included Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign manager, and Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived White House communications director.
In other words, it’s the people “who feel boxed out, feel like they aren’t getting the access they want and see him as a problem in that respect,” Mackowiak said. “And it sounds like maybe Ivanka is now involved in that, because it looks like her role has now been narrowed a bit.”
Vanity Fair reported Thursday that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were discussing possible replacements for the chief of staff.
President Donald Trump, the report said, was “f—ing pissed” that he was not aware of the severity of the allegations against Porter until Ivanka Trump showed him the photos Porter’s ex-wife provided the Daily Mail.
Lewandowski called Trump and told him to fire Kelly in the aftermath of the Porter ordeal, Vanity Fair reported.
Meanwhile, a source told PBS that White House staffers were surprised and dismayed that Kelly initially defended Porter, before the photos emerged publicly, calling Porter “a man of true integrity and honor.”
Who knew what, and when?
Multiple outlets reported Wednesday that several top officials, including Kelly, were aware of the allegations against Porter for months but that Trump learned of them this week.
The officials were reportedly aware as early as August that the allegations were preventing Porter from obtaining a full security clearance. Porter’s ex-wives said they had told the FBI about their allegations during his security-clearance review.
But no action was taken, and Porter’s importance only grew in the administration. CNN reported he was one of a handful of aides who helped draft Trump’s State of the Union address.
Multiple high-ranking politicians have called for Kelly’s ouster as chief of staff.
- Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
“If it is true that President Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly covered up Staff Secretary Rob Porter’s record of domestic violence then he should resign immediately,” Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich tweeted.
Sen. Jon Tester, a fellow Democrat, told CNN that if Kelly “is covering this up, he needs to be held accountable.”
“He better have a really good reason,” Tester said. “Otherwise, he’s gone, too.”
Mackowiak said it “would be a mistake” to oust Kelly, who he said has “done a great job under very difficult circumstances.”
But if Kelly were “presented with really credible information from the FBI that these allegations were correct,” he said, that “would be pretty damaging.”
How did Porter manage without a permanent security clearance?
After the most recent major White House staff shakeup over the summer, Porter emerged as a power player in the administration.
Though he had served in the White House since the onset of Trump’s term, Porter’s profile began to rise once Kelly took over in July, becoming the chief of staff’s right hand.
He was tasked with vetting and filtering what reached Trump’s desk, as well as playing an increasingly large role in the administration’s policy agenda.
For months, Porter kept a low profile in a White House filled with outsize personalities, though roughly a half-dozen former Senate colleagues told Business Insider in September that many on Capitol Hill were thrilled that Porter was working within the administration.
Porter, a Rhodes scholar who attended Harvard with Kushner, was close with Reince Priebus, Trump’s former chief of staff, from his time at the Republican National Committee. Porter also previously served in the offices of Republican Sens. Mike Lee, Rob Portman, and Orrin Hatch.
“Porter had really made himself fairly indispensable,” Mackowiak said. “And they really didn’t want to lose an indispensable person.”
That appeared to be part of the administration’s strong defense of Porter after the allegations emerged.
But as indispensable as Porter had become, his inability to obtain a full security clearance while staying on as staff secretary, a position that frequently involves viewing classified material, has left observers stunned.
“The fact that the staff secretary, the person that sees every piece of paper that goes the president, from kids’ letters to top-secret reports, has been working without a clearance is astonishing,” Reed Galen, the deputy campaign manager for Republican Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, told Business Insider.
He said the fact Porter had remained in his position was proof the Trump White House was still “acting as if they’re still running a family-owned real-estate business.”
Shah, the White House spokesman, said Porter was operating on an interim clearance while his background investigation was ongoing. Still, that Porter could go about his job puzzled Mackowiak.
“So was he seeing top-secret material while only holding an interim clearance or not holding a clearance at all?” he said. “I don’t know how that would’ve worked.”
Will the White House be able to replace Porter without losing a step? Rick Tyler, the communications director for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign, thinks so.
“They will find someone else equally qualified who does not have a record of mental or physical abuse,” he said, “which is what they should have done in the first place.”
The White House says it could’ve done a better job
- Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The ordeal has led to a rare admission from the White House.
During what has become a typically untypical White House press briefing, Shah had to answer for staffers including Hope Hicks, the communications director, and Don McGahn, the White House counsel, who have also been caught up in it.
Reporters asked Shah in rapid-fire succession about whether the president still had confidence in any of these officials.
“Yes,” Shah said.
Shah reiterated his earlier points.
“The president has confidence in his chief of staff, counsel, and communications director,” he said.