White House chief of staff John Kelly’s role in – and the mayhem unleashed by – Rob Porter’s domestic abuse allegations is just the latest episode in a growing record of politically incorrect behavior by the decorated former general turned hardline West Wing fixer.
Kelly was initially credited with bringing military-style rigor to the pandemonium that raged in the Trump White House when he took the job last July.
But the controversy over how long he knew about domestic abuse allegations by White House staff secretary Porter has revived questions about his attitude and political philosophy. The White House’s panicked response to the drama has meanwhile sparked uncertainty about how much Kelly has drained the discord and disorder of Trump’s court.
It’s possible that Trump has changed Kelly more than Kelly has changed Trump, and he is now showing sides of the ex-Marine’s character that were for years hidden behind a cloak of military discipline.
Furthermore, Kelly’s recent remarks on racial and cultural issues and his willingness to embrace Trump’s uncompromising rhetoric and policy on immigration show him to be far more in tune with the populist, nationalist Trump philosophy than was initially assumed.
Kelly under fire
Kelly is now under scrutiny because sources say senior aides knew for months about the allegations, did not address them and in fact actively promoted Porter, who became a key figure in the White House before he resigned over the allegations, while protesting they did not tell the whole story.
Then, when the controversy exploded this week, Kelly’s reaction came across as jarring and insufficient, especially at a time when American political and public life is being reshaped by revelations of abuse and sexual harassment.
The administration was left looking clumsy and out of touch, oblivious to the changed political climate and keen to cover up for one of their own, a state of affairs that naturally put Kelly, who is in charge of White House staff, under fire.
“If John Kelly is covering this up, he needs to be held accountable,” Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, told CNN’s “New Day,” on Thursday. He added: “He better have a really good reason. Otherwise, he’s gone, too.”
The disconnect and scrambling at the top of the administration was reflected in two statements released by Kelly on Wednesday. In the first, drafted with the help of White House communications director Hope Hicks, who is in a relationship with Porter, Kelly poured praise on his right-hand man.
“Rob Porter is 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,” the statement from Kelly read.
Later, with the crisis building by the hour and with the White House hurriedly saying that Porter would now swiftly leave the administration and not stay on for a transition period, Kelly issued a new statement, that was still seen by many critics as falling well short of what was appropriate.
“There is no place for domestic violence in our society. I stand by my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming Chief of Staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation,” Kelly said.
It was not the first time this week that Kelly had attracted condemnation. His comments that some undocumented immigrants were too “afraid” or “lazy” to sign up for protection under the Deferred Action on Child Arrivals (DACA) program was assailed by critics as racist. The criticism also may have complicated intricate congressional talks of compromise dealing with DACA recipients in return for extra funding for a border wall.
The remarks also confirmed Kelly as an important, hardline voice on immigration policy within the White House, which Democrats and some Republicans say is promoting unacceptable limits on legal immigration that could hamper hopes of reaching a final deal.
The week’s turmoil represented exactly the kind of rhetorical indiscipline and botched crisis management that he was brought into the West Wing to end.
It also put him in the position of stealing media attention and reflecting badly on his boss. In the riotous history of the Trump administration that has been a bad place for aides to be.
Already, there are renewed whispers from sources close to the President that he is either fuming or unhappy with his chief of staff, and signs that his daughter Ivanka Trump is angry about how the Porter storm was handled.
There have long been stories that Trump is bristling about level of control Kelly has imposed on his freewheeling phone contacts with his friends and his loose management style. When Trump barged into a session with reporters that Kelly was holding in his office last month, some West Wing tea leaf watchers interpreted the move as a slight against the chief of staff.
Still, Trump went out of his way to quell the rumors.
“Thank you to General John Kelly, who is doing a fantastic job, and all of the Staff and others in the White House, for a job well done. Long hours and Fake reporting makes your job more difficult,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
If Kelly’s position becomes untenable, his departure would spark a new personnel crisis in a West Wing already thin on expertise, that saw multiple exits in Trump’s first year in power, and that is constantly besieged by the cloud of the Russia investigation.
When Kelly, then secretary of Homeland Security moved to the White House, he was widely seen as joining the corps of “grown-ups” including Defense Secretary James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and national security adviser H.R. McMaster who establishment Washington hoped would keep the temperamental President in check.
His immediate impact was noticeable: The stream of visitors into the Oval Office slowed, and the inflammatory leaking from insiders did not stop but at least appeared to be less of a torrent. Some of the more confrontational White House aides left, including Steve Bannon and national security aide Sebastian Gorka.
But there were warning signs. In August, Kelly was seen hanging his head as Trump equivocated about condemning neo-Nazis protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and said there were “very fine people” on both sides of the protests.
When Trump branded North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “rocket man” at the United Nations in September, Kelly was pictured with hand over his eyes, launching speculation about what he really thought of the President’s fiery rhetoric on a boiling foreign policy crisis.
Those episodes were widely seen in Washington as a sign that there was only so much that the new chief of staff could do to control his boss.
Ironically, Kelly’s finest hour as chief of staff coincided with one of the incendiary moments that have prompted those who knew him in uniform to marvel about how he has changed.
In October, Kelly appeared in the White House briefing room to defend the President in a dispute over remarks he made to the widow of a US soldier, La David Johnson, who was killed in Niger.
The former four star general, whose own son Robert was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010, offered a powerful and moving explanation of the harrowing emotions experienced by those who lose loved ones in America’s wars abroad, and the process of returning a fallen soldier back to US soil.
But at the same time, Kelly set off a stunning controversy, rooted in his belief that Democratic Rep. Frederica Wilson, who had listened in on Trump’s call to Johnson’s grieving widow, had politicized the soldier’s sacrifice.
He accused Wilson of claiming credit for securing federal funding for a new FBI field office in Miami in 2015.
“Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned,” Kelly said. When a video emerged refuting the chief of staff’s account of the episode, he refused to say sorry.
Later in October, Kelly sparked fresh controversy when he weighed in on Fox News on the debate over statues commemorating confederate civil war heroes.
He said that General Robert E. Lee was an “honorable man” and argued that a “lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War.” Many historians faulted the chief of staff for downplaying that fact that slavery caused the Civil War.
It was another sign that Kelly was perhaps more comfortable with Trump’s habit of prodding at the racial and societal fault lines than was previously assumed.
More recently, his remarks about DACA and his management of the Porter episode have some of his friends wondering what is behind an apparent change in behavior on Kelly’s part.
One retired general told CNN’s Jim Acosta, “I don’t recognize Kelly from the time we served together in Iraq,” and said that the chief of staff should have distanced himself from Porter until the allegations were investigated.
The retired general also said he was “disgusted” by Kelly’s rhetoric on the immigrant kids brought illegally to the US.
“I’ll also say this old axiom: The command takes on the personality of the commander,” the retired general said. “It appears Trump brings out the worst in a lot of people.”