- Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images
- People close to President Donald Trump are torn over what should happen to the White House chief of staff, John Kelly.
- Some say it’d be a “lethal” mistake for Trump to oust him.
- Others say he needs to go for his handling of the Rob Porter scandal.
John Kelly’s future as the White House chief of staff appears to be in question as the Rob Porter scandal continues to escalate. And President Donald Trump’s allies are torn over what should be the fate of the retired Marine general who has fought to bring order to a chaotic West Wing.
Porter, the former White House staff secretary who had an important behind-the-scenes job, resigned last week amid abuse allegations from two ex-wives. Kelly initially released a statement defending Porter, only to release a second statement nearly a full day after the story broke that expressed shock at photographic evidence of the alleged abuse published in the Daily Mail.
Some of Trump’s allies say it would be a “lethal” mistake for the president to oust Kelly, who many feel is a stabilizing force within the White House and helped quell some of the backbiting that plagued the administration for much of its first year.
“The president should just move on,” a former Trump campaign aide told Business Insider. “Tell his team, ‘Let’s make sure this never happens again.’ Stop prosecuting mistakes publicly. Firing Kelly would be a lethal mistake, and I doubt he is even considering it.”
Others say Kelly has burned his remaining credibility with this episode and should be replaced, now that he has gone from the voice of stability to the cause of chaos.
“Kelly is now just another staffer who could get fired any day of the week by Donald J. Trump,” said one person close to the White House. “Not that I expect him gone today or tomorrow. This is a lesson in what happens when the stabilizing force becomes the agent of chaos.”
Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House communications director, tweeted Tuesday that Kelly’s handling of the scandal was “inexcusable.”
“Kelly must resign,” he wrote.
‘Much ado about nothing’
Several top White House officials have sought to squash the idea that Kelly’s job is in jeopardy. The White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway; the deputy press secretary, Raj Shah; the legislative affairs director, Marc Short; and Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, have all in recent days either denied that Trump is seeking to replace Kelly or expressed skepticism over reporting that Kelly could be on the way out.
“I think all the stories about replacing General Kelly are from people who are unhappy they’ve lost access to the president,” Mulvaney told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday.” “It’s much ado about nothing.”
- Thomson Reuters
Some of those stories included Vanity Fair reporting Thursday that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were discussing possible replacements for Kelly and that the former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski called Trump and told him to fire the chief of staff.
The Washington Post reported Tuesday that much of Kelly’s colleagues had lost faith in him. One White House official described Kelly to The Post as a “big fat liar.”
Names of his potential replacements have been floated all week: Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn; Republican Rep. Mark Meadows; House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy; and Mulvaney. One outside adviser to the president even suggested that Trump should consider naming Conway as his chief of staff, rumors she dismissed last weekend.
Publicly, some of Trump’s closest allies have held little back in their criticism of the chief of staff. Lewandowski, for instance, told the Fox News radio host Todd Starnes that the “critical mistake was that General Kelly and [White House press secretary] Sarah Huckabee Sanders put out these steadfast statements supporting Mr. Porter before all of the facts of the case were known.”
Lewandowski added there were “multiple indications that people in the building had been made aware of this for at least the better part of six months or longer.”
“That is the inexcusable part,” he continued, adding: “At the end of the day, the chief of staff is the one responsible for the staff of the White House, and I think it’s fair to say this particular issue was not handled to the best of the White House’s ability.”
Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor and another prominent ally, insisted that the public needed to hear from Kelly as to exactly what he knew about Porter and when he knew it.
“And we haven’t heard that directly from him yet,” he told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos. “And I think the president needs to hear that before he can make an evaluation of competence. In the end, George, this is about competence. And you have to, as the chief of staff, be able to competently run the place. If there’s allegations against him, the president is going to have to make that call.”
‘It was all done right’
Contradictory accounts have been presented about Kelly’s handling of the allegations against Porter. Porter’s ex-wives claimed as part of the Daily Mail story that he physically and mentally abused them in their marriages. Both ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, provided the Daily Mail with photographic evidence of the alleged abuse. Porter has denied the allegations.
Two senior officials told The Washington Post that Kelly held a meeting in which he instructed top staffers to describe the lead-up to Porter’s resignation from the White House in a contradictory way to the administration’s previous accounts. He told the staffers to say he took action to remove Porter within 40 minutes of first learning of credible allegations that Porter physically and mentally abused his two ex-wives, The Post said.
- Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
Other reporting suggested that Kelly was aware of the allegations for weeks at the very least, as they were preventing Porter from being able to obtain a permanent security clearance. On Sunday, the news website Axios reported that Porter has told associates he “never misrepresented anything” to Kelly, contradicting the chief of staff’s statements on what he knew and when.
On Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the bureau alerted the White House to problems with Porter’s background check months ago, throwing significant doubt into Kelly’s version of events.
For Kelly’s part, the crisis has only seemed to prompt him to dig in and defend his stature.
On Monday, Kelly told The Wall Street Journal that he thought the administration had done nothing wrong in its handling of the Porter fallout.
“It was all done right,” he insisted.