The shockwaves emanating through the White House after the revelation that former staff secretary Rob Porter had been accused of domestic abuse by two ex-wives continued through the weekend and exposed an administration divided, despite attempts to present a unified front.
Much of the focus following Porter’s departure centers around White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who actively defended Porter publicly after the accusations were revealed last week. Privately, Kelly told Porter that he needed to resign on Wednesday evening, but Porter said he was asked to not resign and fight the charges by a group of White House officials that included Kelly. When photographs of Porter’s ex-wives emerged, further incriminating the former senior aide, Kelly, according to the New York Times, was persuaded to issue a second statement expressing shock. On Friday, Kelly said he would be willing to resign if that was the president’s desire, but no resignation was offered or drafted.
President Trump scrambled various aides to make media appearances over the weekend, attempting to quell doubts about his confidence in and frustration with Kelly. Kellyanne Conway appeared on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, telling host Jake Tapper, “I told [President Trump] 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 … I have faith in him.’”
Conway’s relayed statement comes as Trump informally identified White House budget director Mick Mulvaney and Rep. Kevin McCarthy as possible replacements for Kelly should he resign or be forced out. Mulvaney refuted any interest in Kelly’s job during an appearance on CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday. “I don’t want that job … I love the job—jobs—that I have now,” said Mulvaney, who also heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Mulvaney also defended the White House’s handling of the situation, claiming that giving “the benefit of the doubt” to a colleague until more evidence was revealed was perfectly normal. “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,” said Mulvaney.
The problem with giving Porter the benefit of the doubt, however, was that the White House was briefed well in advance of last week that spousal abuse allegations had been lodged against him and they chose not to further investigate themselves.
According to the Washington Post, White House counsel Donald McGahn II was informed of the possibility of the existence of allegations against Porter by Porter himself shortly after Trump’s inauguration last January. Porter described them as false charges but expressed concern that they could impact his FBI background check. Six months later, the FBI informed McGahn that the accusations had surfaced, just as Porter feared, but McGahn chose to wait for the FBI to finish its investigation. In November, the FBI informed senior White House officials, including McGahn and Kelly, that the charges against Porter were credible and that his security clearance was likely to be rejected. No action was taken at that time to terminate Porter.
According the New York Times, the lack of scrutiny on the part of the White House counsel and reliance on the FBI differs vastly from past administrations, which undertook a heavy internal vetting process for advisers and officials.
Kelly initially called the charges “vile” and attempted to cover up his prior knowledge of the situation. White House communications director Hope Hicks, who has been romantically involved with Porter, tried to foster support for him after the charges went public. McGahn delayed taking action against Porter.
Worst of all, the president praised Porter after he left the White House, saying, “he worked very hard … we wish him well.” He bemoaned the “tough time” Porter is facing while reiterating Porter’s denial: “He also, as you probably know, says he is innocent, and I think you have to remember that.” The same day his crew made the media rounds to ensure everyone the White House wasn’t falling apart, Trump took to Twitter to complain about the lack of attention toward his accomplishments.
The knowledge and actions of the White House, despite having Porter’s accusations on its radar for more than a year, speaks more than anything anyone said on Sunday.