President Donald Trump spent the weekend putting himself on the wrong side of a potential turning point in history, formed by the sudden, sharp change in how society responds to women’s allegations of abuse.
But by Sunday evening, there were signs his camp recognized he was on treacherous political ground as sources told Axios that Trump believed accusations against his ex-aide Rob Porter and thought he was “sick.”
It would not be unusual for Trump to hold two opposite opinions on an issue at once. Yet the idea that he had always been disgusted by allegations leveled against Porter by two ex-wives risked coming across as belated political spin, given his previous comments and jarring lack of empathy for the women involved.
The contradictions in the White House narrative over the Porter affair are emblematic of a chaotic few days in an administration that remains tone deaf to a world beginning to hear the long-silenced voices of victims of sexual assault and other abuse.
Several White House officials have expressed confusion over the President’s conflicting remarks, questioning how Trump can go from reportedly calling Porter “a sick puppy” in private to being defensive of him and dismissive of the allegations in public.
These aides say they are left wondering where Trump truly stands on this issue.
It marks another display of a President trashing conventions of normal West Wing behavior at a fraught political moment at home and abroad.
Multiple administration officials tried a clean-up mission on political talk shows Sunday, but mostly only managed to add to the confusion.
Yet Trump, who uses chaos as an instrument of power, is employing a playbook that has often served him well before, even if his decision to put himself at odds with a moment of sweeping political change is a high-risk play.
The President often deliberately inserts himself on the least politically correct side of some of the most sensitive societal questions, on race (Charlottesville), on religion (travel ban targeting Muslim nations), on immigration (calling Mexicans “rapists” and criminals) and against the LGBT community (military ban on transgender service members).
Often, his strategy has worked. His willingness to say the kind of things most politicians would never dare utter built him an unshakeable base of voters who are never shocked by behavior that revolts the establishment and repeatedly confounds predictions of his political demise.
On Saturday, Trump doubled down, a day after being criticized for empathizing with the plight of Porter, his former staff secretary, while ignoring the violent accounts detailed by Porter’s ex-wives.
“Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused - life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?”
The tweet was consistent with Trump’s habit of often taking the side of an accused male over sexual or physical abuse allegations rather than the alleged victims – unless the accused is Bill Clinton. It also may reflect his vulnerability as a politician who has been accused of multiple instances of sexual assault against women.
But in a deeper sense, it also placed him in direct contravention of the new default societal position that has seen the testimony of women who allege assault and discrimination taken at face value, and resulted in the ostracizing of powerful men in the media, politics, business and entertainment.
Possibly, Trump, in defending Porter – as he had former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore – was hoping to ignite a backlash against the #MeToo movement.
But apart from cutting against most common definitions of decency, Trump’s stand represents a dangerous political strategy, one that White House aides might have recognized in their comments to Axios.
White women voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton by nine points in 2016, but a recent CNN/SSRS survey shows him being crushed in the same voting block by three potential Democratic 2020 candidates – Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders or Oprah Winfrey. Women voters will be crucial in the midterm election in November and in swing states during Trump’s re-election bid in 2020.
The Porter episode has not just revived questions about Trump’s character that could further erode his numbers among women, but exposed an administration divided against itself and put the job of chief of staff John Kelly in doubt.
It also provoked debate about the morality of the administration itself, and the quality of the people who Trump chose to employ. That disquiet was exacerbated when it emerged Saturday that a second White House official, David Sorensen, had also resigned after being accused of domestic abuse.
The weekend’s stunning drama also coincides with an intense and consequential moment in Washington and around the world that will test the administration’s capacity to respond to multiple challenges.
Trump appears to be edging closer to a constitutional crisis every week, after apparently using presidential declassification power in a showdown over dueling Republican and Democratic memos to try to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. A CNN report on Friday that 30 to 40 senior White House and other top officials still lacked full security clearances exacerbated the disarray.
The Senate will, meanwhile, take up immigration this week, escalating a bitter showdown over the issue.
Abroad, several crises are racing to boiling point as Kim Jong Un’s Olympic charm offense threatens to weaken the US-South Korea alliance and as the US, Iran, Russia and Israel bump up against one another in the cauldron of Syria.
A vote for chaos
It’s often said that Trump’s supporters voted for chaos, so desperate were they for changes in an establishment political system they viewed as corrupt and broken and badly in need of a shakeup.
If so, they got what they wanted over the weekend, as the dizzying lurches in direction and position from the White House recalled the circus-like dysfunction that rocked the President in his first weeks in office.
Senior aides to Trump told CNN last week that Kelly had known by early fall of last year that Porter was having trouble in getting a security clearance after his ex-wives claimed he had abused them. Far from dismissing him, Kelly, presided over the elevation of Porter’s West Wing role.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that Kelly learned the full extent of the claims Tuesday and “by Wednesday, Rob Porter was out.”
Early Sunday however, Axios reported that Porter told associates that White House officials encouraged him to “stay and fight” rather than resign following the original report of the abuse allegations in the Daily Mail.
If there has been a shift in the President’s position on Porter, perhaps as a result of the backlash against his comments, it may have been previewed by Conway, who took the opposite position to the President.
“I have no reason not to believe the women,” she told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
The inconsistencies and backtracking have engulfed Kelly. After the allegations broke, Kelly issued a statement strongly backing Porter’s character. In another incredible twist to the saga, his remarks were partly drafted by reclusive White House communications director Hope Hicks, who was in a romantic relationship with Porter.
Amid an immediate backlash, Kelly hurriedly issued another statement saying that there was “no place for domestic violence in our society” though standing by his prior assessment of Porter’s character. Porter denied the accusations against him, but still resigned.
On Friday, two sources familiar with meetings in the White House said Kelly was telling White House staff that he was personally responsible for Porter’s resignation. But several officials told The Washington Post that they considered that Kelly’s version of events was not true.
The furor appeared to weaken Kelly’s position. By Friday night, sources told CNN that he had made clear he would resign if Trump wanted him to, amid reports the President was considering who might replace him. The White House categorically denied that Kelly had offered to quit in any way.
Conway told Tapper that Trump told her specifically to say that he retained confidence in the retired Marine general.
But by definition, the job of chief of staff is to assure seamless operation of the presidency. And though Kelly has had some success in quelling the uproar and streamlining the information flow towards Trump, the current tumult, following a string of outspoken remarks by the chief of staff, could make him a liability.
CNN’s Jeremy Diamond, Pam Brown, Kaitlan Collins, Jim Acosta, Kevin Liptak, Gloria Borger and Maegan Vazquez contributed to this article