Kelly remains in the eye of the White House storm
Posted February 13, 2018 7:07 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The more frantically the White House tries to extricate itself from the Rob Porter scandal, the deeper it digs into a political hole.
Eight days in, it's beginning to look like the storm set off by the surfacing of allegations by two ex-wives of the former presidential aide will never abate, absent a decisive intervention by President Donald Trump in moment of accountability and self-criticism that seems alien to this White House.
On a day of shifting explanations and damaging revelations Tuesday, pressure built inexorably on chief of staff John Kelly, who presides over a West Wing flailing amid farcical crisis management and an inability to take a moral stand.
Trump has been calling friends to ask them when the scandal ends and what he can do, sources told CNN's Kaitlan Collins, offering a picture of a dysfunctional administration led by a President who barges headlong into trouble and a staff that appears unable to rescue him.
Multiple sources told CNN that Trump has not yet decided whether to replace Kelly but that conversations about who could succeed him have heated up. One source said the chief of staff had been damaged by calls from Trump allies outside the White House for him to go.
In many ways, the Porter scandal is emblematic of the wider story of a White House that often hides the truth, blames others for its messes, appears internally divided and simply can't get its story straight.
The fallout from the Porter scandal is now into its second week -- an unusually long time for Trump -- and a new outrage has yet to take over the news cycle.
It is about more than a now-departed White House aide, and has expanded to undermine the credibility of top officials, including Kelly, White House counsel Don McGahn, press secretary Sarah Sanders and her deputy, Raj Shah.
From bad to worse
The crisis lurched from bad to worse on Tuesday when FBI Director Christopher Wray blew a hole in Sanders' claim that decision-making delays in the bureau's security screening process explained delays on a final decision on Porter's security clearance.
His explanation in a congressional hearing that the FBI had completed its background check on Porter in July, offered additional information in November in response to White House requests and closed the file in January meant that Sanders had either lied with her account of events on Monday -- or was not fully in the loop about what is going on inside the White House.
A day after hanging the FBI out to dry, Sanders instead singled out career officials in the White House Personnel Security Office, saying they were to blame because they had not finished "their process" on Porter.
But Sanders, diminished by her debunked narrative of the day before, also repeatedly distanced herself from her superiors, giving the impression that she was not fully convinced of the truth of information she was telling the press.
"I can only give you the best information that I have," Sanders said at one point.
She added to the impression of a divided and rudderless White House ship by saying: "The press team's not going to be as read-in, maybe, as some other elements at a given moment on a variety of topics.
"But we relay the best and most accurate information that we have."
'It was all done right'
Kelly, who has not yet offered a public accounting of what happened, told The Wall Street Journal for an article published on Tuesday that "it was all done right" regarding Porter, raising questions about whether senior officials in the White House truly appreciate the gravity of the scandal enveloping them.
By the end of the day, the White House had still not answered the key questions about the saga. When did Kelly or McGahn learn about allegations that were preventing Porter getting his clearance? If they knew, did they actively decide to keep him on, with his interim clearance anyway?
Late Tuesday evening, a White House official made yet another attempt to clean up the story, telling CNN's Jeff Zeleny that McGahn had not shared sufficient information about the situation with top officials, including Kelly.
The White House counsel knew that there were issues with Porter's background in July -- the same month, Wray testified, that the bureau completed its background check on the former White House staff secretary.
But the official also faulted Kelly, saying he has "been reluctant to dig with Don to find out what he really knew."
The new explanation, by an anonymous official, is unlikely, however, to make the days-long fallout from the Porter affair go away -- and may only serve to fuel the media feeding frenzy engulfing the White House.
Such is the confusion and mess of shifting explanations, it looks like a situation that only a robust presidential intervention can cure. The problem, however, is that Trump already has made the drama worse, by publicly defending Porter and complaining that those deposed by the #MeToo movement have been denied "due process."
One way for the President to stop the bleeding would be to appear before the press, admit that things could have been handled better and pledge to overhaul the entire background check process. Some crises can be quelled only by a demonstrable exercise of presidential power.
But that kind of personal accountability seems highly unlikely for a President whose personal code precludes him from admitting mistakes. And were Trump to field questions on the issue he would inevitably then face scrutiny over the multiple sexual assault allegations that have been leveled against him.
The President did not respond to shouted questions in two photo ops on Tuesday about whether he believed Porter's ex-wives, allowing the scandal to gather momentum and disappointing even some of his top supporters.
"I think the President needs to be more forceful here, I do. I think he needs to be more explicit; he needs to be more deliberate in talking about this issue," said Steve Cortes, a former Trump campaign adviser, on CNN.
"My humble advice to him is he has created an unnecessary distraction here. Let's acknowledge the real pain of these women. Let's acknowledge the reality that they were abused," Cortes said.
If Trump ignores that advice, perhaps Kelly could do the job himself, by appearing in public and accepting that the buck stops with him, and perhaps pledging lessons of the Porter debacle after a full White House review.
The problem with that approach is that it might not work, since Kelly is an integral player in the saga after actively promoting Porter as a key force inside the West Wing in recent months.
And though the chief of staff can be a compelling performer before the cameras, he can also be abrasive -- as witnessed when he went after Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Florida, who had complained about Trump's attitude in a call with the widow of La David Johnson, a US soldier killed in Niger last year.
If Kelly is unable to clean up the mess, the question must then be asked whether it will ever be quelled with him still at the White House.
Although Trump still has confidence in Kelly, according to Sanders, the Porter debacle has clearly made the chief of staff's grip on his job far more tenuous. The President, moreover, has a history of seeking someone to blame when he slumps into political trouble. It may not be long before Trump eventually concludes that he could sweep the scandal away completely if he replaces Kelly.
That's why, the longer the pattern of obfuscation, blame shifting, lies and chaotic crisis management continues, it gets harder and harder to see the White House emerging from it with Kelly still in charge.