When John Kelly was hired as Donald Trump’s second chief of staff, he made very clear that his focus would be not on managing the President but on managing the White House staff.
A quick glance at the series of profiles written of Kelly when he ascended to chief of staff in late July shows that the word “order” is everywhere. Kelly was lauded for his military background and sense of discipline. This paragraph, from a New York Times piece, is symbolic of the coverage at the time:
“Mr. Kelly’s arrival in his new post on Monday could signal a new stability at the White House, but only if Mr. Trump gives him the authority to crack down on the behavior of his other aides.”
That storyline crashed into a brick wall of reality this week when it was revealed that Kelly had been aware of allegations of domestic abuse against White House staff secretary Rob Porter for months and had not only not acted to remove Porter but had urged him to weather the storm caused by the accusations as late as Tuesday night.
And the White House’s attempt at explaining why Kelly did nothing – and, in fact, pushed Porter further and further into the Trump inner circle – falls flat.
Here’s principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah trying – and failing – to absolve Kelly of blame at Thursday’s press briefing:
“I know there’s been some reports about the chief of staff. He became fully aware about these allegations yesterday. I’m not going to get into the specifics regarding who may have known what pieces of information because they were all part of an ongoing background check investigation.”
The word “fully” is doing A LOT of work in that explanation. Shah hinted that the emergence of a picture – showing one of Porter’s ex-wives with a black eye – influenced Kelly. “it’s the full nature of the allegation, particularly the images,” said Shah.
So, until he saw the picture, Kelly believed Porter’s denials.
Except, that’s not the job. The job of the chief of staff – and especially this chief of staff given his emphasis on managing the staff and restoring discipline in the ranks – is to sniff out problems before they become problems.
Let’s review the facts here. Porter’s ex-wives told the FBI in January 2017 that he had abused them verbally and physically. Thirteen months later, Porter still had no permanent security clearance due to the questions regarding these incidents. That, coupled with the fact that Kelly had come to learn at least some of the allegations against Porter last fall, make Kelly’s urging Porter to stay on the job all the more appalling.
At no point in the past year did Kelly not think to ask why Porter’s security clearance hadn’t come through? After all, Porter was one of the people who spent the most time with President Trump on a daily basis – and someone who was, effectively, the gate-keeper of all information that Trump saw. Upon hearing the allegations – or part of them – against Porter last fall, Kelly never felt like it was his job to find out more? And, after learning more of the details earlier this week, Kelly thought it made sense to put out a fulsome statement praising Porter – a statement that was crafted at least in part by White House communications director Hope Hicks, who was romantically involved with Porter?
That Kelly seems to have not considered – or considered and dismissed – all of these questions is mind-boggling.
But, there’s a simple reason to explain it all: Kelly liked Porter personally and saw Porter as someone who could help him bring a level of order to the White House.
Kelly wanted the information flow to Trump managed. Porter did that. Those familiar with the inner workings of the White House suggest that Porter was effectively functioning as a sort of deputy chief of staff, a Kelly ally who executed on the mission of managing what Trump saw day in and day out.
But, elevating someone with very real questions from his past – questions that you have known about for months!! – is not the job of chief of staff. Playing favorites isn’t either.
And that appears to be exactly what Kelly was doing here.
On Thursday, Shah insisted that Trump had total confidence in Kelly. I’m not sure he should.