White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly's week has gone from bad to worse, after word leaked from White House staff Friday morning that he urged them to spread a version of events on the Rob Porter debacle that contradicts previous accounts.
At this point, it is looking more and more difficult to see how he will survive.
According to The Washington Post's Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey, Kelly told staff Friday to say he had decided to fire Porter within 40 minutes of learning allegations Porter abused two ex-wives were credible. Some staffers who were at the meeting left feeling that Kelly had effectively asked them to lie on his behalf.
It is extremely difficult to square that statement with everything we know. Kelly issued an initial statement Tuesday featuring effusive praise for Porter, and reports indicated that even as Porter was resigning, Kelly had urged him to stay on and fight. Even in issuing a second statement Wednesday night that said the allegations against Porter were “shocking,” Kelly stood by his earlier statement that Porter was “a man of true integrity and honor, and I can't say enough good things about him.”
More important, though, that this leaked out so quickly suggests Kelly has lost the confidence of his staff. When you combine this with that letter he sent to them Thursday night assuring them he takes domestic violence seriously, it suggests serious unrest in the West Wing and a chief of staff who is treading water with the staff he leads.
White House aides probably could have tried to sell the version of events Kelly told them to — it hinges upon how you define “credible,” after all, and is refuted only by anonymously sourced reporting at this point — but they are apparently unwilling to front for him and make themselves vulnerable professionally.
That is really what matters in this White House. Public pressure is one thing, but the White House has often proved itself to be impervious to it, through any number of highly controversial episodes that might have torn apart a previous administration. President Trump — or “Teflon Don,” as some refer to him — has an almost-reflexive tendency to disregard when the media suggest things in the White House have gone too far. He has also pushed back against his own accusations of misconduct with women, which suggests Kelly's efforts to defend Porter probably were not a dealbreaker for Trump personally.
If this were just about the public or just about Trump, Kelly would have a much better chance of survival. Rucker wrote Thursday about how Kelly's credibility has been undermined in his own staff's eyes:
Kelly’s luster has slowly eroded during his roughly six months as Trump’s top staffer — and some White House aides worry it may be acutely painful, considering he takes personal pride in his honor as a lifelong public servant. . . .
The perception of Kelly as above politics has been critical to his success in the West Wing. Publicly, he has come to Trump’s aid at moments of crisis, while privately he has been used to kill damaging news stories, or put a positive spin on them.
But the irony for Kelly may be that the credibility that makes him a singular asset in this White House may have been irreparably damaged by his work in it.
The problem for Kelly with the Porter scandal is it is a succession of multiplying errors. In Kelly's and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders's initial statements, they went far beyond saying these were mere allegations and there needed to be an investigation. They responded as if they knew it all was baseless and Porter was above reproach. That calculus quickly changed once one of the ex-wives produced photos of her black eye she said resulted from Porter having hit her. With every passing hour, that initial, full-throated response looks more and more like political malpractice — to say nothing of its moral implications.
This all feels almost like an intervention to prevent the White House from digging even more of a hole. It harks to an episode in the summer in which White House staff leaked word Trump had personally involved himself in the misleading explanations of Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting at Trump Tower with a Russian lawyer. In both cases, the aides seemed to be worried such misleading actions could do irreparable damage — for Trump with the Russia investigation and for Kelly with his and the White House's credibility.
In both cases, they apparently felt their only recourse was to put out word that the most powerful men in the White House were trying to mislead the American people.