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John Kelly’s credibility is at risk after defending aide accused of domestic violence

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly watches as President Trump speaks with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office last week. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly first found his credibility being challenged in October, when he leveraged his standing as a retired four-star Marine Corps general who had lost a son on the battlefield to try to contain a political crisis over President Trump’s calls to the families of fallen soldiers.

His reputation took another hit when he later refused to apologize for falsely attacking a Democratic congresswoman. And another when he called Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee “honorable” and blamed the Civil War on a lack of compromise. And yet another when early this week he said some immigrants known as “dreamers” were “too lazy to get off their asses.”

Then came the Rob Porter saga.

After the White House staff secretary was accused of domestic violence by both of his ex-wives, Kelly publicly defended Porter as “a man of true integrity and honor,” adding, “I can’t say enough good things about him.” Privately, Kelly reportedly urged him to stay in his job.

White House officials said Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told them to give information about staff secretary Rob Porter's ouster that contradicts other reports. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

Kelly’s actions left his critics — as well as some West Wing subordinates — questioning how much credibility he has left.

“To have a chief of staff defend the integrity of a person who’s been credibly accused of being a wife beater is just stunning . . . and unconscionable,” said Peter Wehner, who has served in the three previous Republican administrations and opposes Trump. “What he’s done as chief of staff doesn’t undo what he did as a heroic war figure, but it diminishes him as a person, and that’s regrettable.”

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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.

John R. Allen, a retired four-star Marine Corps general and a close friend of Kelly’s, said the political portrayal of Kelly by critics bears little resemblance to the leader he served alongside.

“This is a man who, across the Corps for 40 years, was considered to be the exemplar of moral principle and integrity,” Allen said. “He was a selfless servant in every possible way — a lot of personal courage, moral courage to do the right thing. His values were very powerfully formed, and it’s just difficult for me to find in my memory of my service with him a flaw.”

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. Some senior aides acknowledge this administration has a serious credibility problem, in part because of the president’s erratic nature and propensity to utter falsehoods.

Leon Panetta, a former defense secretary and White House chief of staff in Democratic administrations, served with Kelly under President Barack Obama and has observed him in recent months.

“He just appears to be more on edge these days,” Panetta said of Kelly. “That may be the result of frustration with dealing with issues and, in some ways, dealing with Trump. When you’re a chief of staff, you spend a lot of time with this president. It starts to wear on you.”

In October, as part of his defense of Trump’s engagement with Gold Star parents, Kelly lectured journalists on morality. “When I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country,” he said. “Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor.”

This week, Kelly defended Porter on Tuesday after the Daily Mail published a detailed account of Porter’s alleged abuse of his second wife. On Wednesday, after photographs of his first wife with a black eye surfaced, as well as more allegations from both women, Kelly stood by Porter, who has denied the allegations.

Only after Porter announced he would resign, and with the matter blowing into a media firestorm, did Kelly issue a second statement. He claimed Wednesday night that he was “shocked” by the allegations — which the White House had known about generally since late last year — and added, “There is no place for domestic violence in our society.”

Still, Kelly stood by his earlier praise for “the Rob Porter that I have come to know.”

Top White House aides typically speak of Kelly with reverence, but spokespeople declined requests Wednesday evening and Thursday morning to speak for this article and discuss the ­questions surrounding Kelly’s integrity.

Chris Whipple, author of a history of White House chiefs of staff, said Kelly’s management of the Porter situation reveals him to be “politically inept.”

“It’s clear now that those expectations everybody had that Kelly would somehow be the grown-up in the room, a moderating force who would smooth the rough edges off of Trump, were just completely unrealistic,” Whipple said.

Kelly was brought to the White House to impose order. Now he’s stirring controversy.

Kelly has been the target of some Trump loyalists, inside and outside the administration, who have taken issue with his moves to control access to the president. Two of these people noted privately that Kelly was far more vociferous in his defense of Porter than any White House staffer had been after the president was accused last month of having had an ­extramarital affair with porn star Stormy Daniels; one noted that spousal abuse is illegal but arranging “hush money” for a mistress is not.

Although Trump has vented privately on occasion about Kelly’s methods, the president has publicly lavished praise on his chief of staff.

This was not Kelly’s only brush with controversy this week. On Tuesday, the White House chief of staff described immigrants in language widely considered offensive if not racist.

During a visit to the Capitol, Kelly posited an explanation for why hundreds of thousands of young immigrants had not yet applied for legal protections granted by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program: “Some would say [they] were too afraid to sign up; others would say [they] were too lazy to get off their asses.”

This comes after Kelly waded into the emotionally and racially charged minefield of Civil War history in the fall. He called Lee “an honorable man” and attributed the conflict to “the lack of an ability to compromise,” adding that “men and women of good faith on both sides made their stand.”

There also was the Oct. 19 news conference in which Kelly waxed about the degradation of societal values in the United States. That is when he excoriated Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) for listening in on and then publicizing her account of Trump’s call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of one of the four soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger.

Kelly said he was “appalled” that Wilson — a family friend of Johnson’s — criticized Trump’s tone and choice of words on the call, and he accused the congresswoman of speaking “in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise.”

Kelly also falsely accused Wilson of grandstanding about her role winning funding for a new FBI building in Miami at its 2015 christening. Video of her remarks at the event showed he wrongly portrayed what she said, but Kelly refused to back down from his contention.

Kelly, whose son died in combat, defends president’s call to Gold Star widow

Kelly, 67, was a decorated war commander with an unimpeachable reputation when he joined the Trump administration in January 2017 as secretary of homeland security. He was appointed White House chief of staff in late July.

Few administration officials have been as vociferous in their defenses of Trump’s character — as well as of his hard-line policy views on immigration and national security — than Kelly, who in turn has become a subject of occasional mockery and derision by critics of the president.

“To understand John Kelly is to understand that he is, first and foremost, a Marine and somebody who obviously has a lot of respect for the country and for whoever’s the commander in chief,” Panetta said. “But he’s also not a politician, and that means that what he says is not something that is screened through a kind of political spectrum.”

Kelly is only the latest Trump staffer to have their credibility take a beating in the eyes of some because of their work for the president.

“Almost everybody who gets into Donald Trump’s orbit is stained by that,” said Wehner, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Everyone who gets in his orbit is diminished, and their reputations are hurt. It’s almost as predictable as the sun rising in the east and settling in the west.”