WH gripped by tumult over abuse allegations
Posted February 9, 2018 6:08 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON (CNN) — The White House is gripped with internal tumult over the handling of domestic abuse allegations against a top aide, with furor centered on two top officials, according to people familiar with the matter.
President Donald Trump blames his chief of staff John Kelly for allowing the scandal to mushroom, people familiar with the matter said. Kelly made it clear to Trump on Friday he would resign if that's what the President wanted, though there was little to indicate the President is prepared to immediately dismiss him. The White House was forced to issue an on-the-record statement late Friday denying Kelly had offered to resign.
Meanwhile, Trump's top lawyer, Don McGahn, is facing blame from others inside the White House for the handling of abuse claims against Rob Porter, the former staff secretary, according to multiple people inside the administration.
The internal strife, fingerpointing, and swirl of accusations lent the West Wing an air of confusion and division, more than a half dozen advisers, officials, and people familiar with the matter said on Friday.
Porter first told McGahn last January that his ex-wives may present potentially damaging information during an FBI background check, people familiar with the matter said. At points over the next year, Porter described the potential allegations in greater detail to McGahn and other top White House aides as it became clear the information could stall his security clearance.
His ex-wives have told CNN they provided descriptions of their marriages to Porter to the FBI, including photographs of the alleged abuse, early last year. The agency relayed that information to the White House in the spring, according to people familiar with the matter.
Even a late-November phone call from one of Porter's ex-girlfriends, who described the abuse allegations directly to McGahn and voiced concerns over Porter's romantic relationship with communications director Hope Hicks, wasn't enough for the White House to take steps to investigate the claims or terminate Porter's employment. McGahn has told people he referred the allegations to White House security officials.
Inside the White House
Inside the White House, some believe McGahn was willing to overlook the accusations against Porter to keep a person he viewed as essential, people familiar with internal conversations said, who also said Kelly was loathe to dismiss someone who helped professionalize the building.
McGahn didn't comment for this story.
He is defending himself against the internal blowback by claiming he was allowing the FBI background check process to unfold before taking any steps to dismiss Rob Porter, according to a person familiar with the conversations. He has also told people he encouraged Porter to leave the White House once it became clear late last year that his clearance wouldn't be granted, according to a person familiar with the matter. And McGahn has told people in recent days that he was misled by Porter.
But that defense - which has also been used by Kelly and other top officials who were aware of certain details about the abuse claims before they became public - is being met with open skepticism among staff, some of whom believe Porter was protected because of his close working relationship with the President.
McGahn has found himself at the center of several controversies over his year-long tenure. He was accused of withholding information from the President after then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates presented concerns over Michael Flynn, Trump's pick for national security adviser. And though he does not represent Trump in the ongoing Russia investigation, he has interjected at moments to prevent Trump from short-circuiting the probe, including when Trump considered firing special counsel Robert Mueller.
Kelly sought to mount a defense of his own Friday, convening a meeting with aides in which he said he was responsible for securing Porter's decision to step down, according to a source familiar with the conversation. One source said staffers came away from the meeting with the impression that Kelly was trying to change the narrative after a damaging week. Several officials also pointed out that the leak of the meeting didn't bode well for Kelly's popularity in the West Wing.
On Friday, it appeared the internal rancor was unlikely to cost anyone else their jobs in the near-term, though Trump has spoken with aides and advisers about possible eventual replacements for his chief of staff.
Conversations have been going on all week long among White House staffers as to what a "post-Kelly world looks like," a source familiar with these discussions said, with Trump's budget chief Mick Mulvaney seen as a leading contender to eventually replace Kelly.
"The conversation keeps coming back to Mulvaney," the source said, noting that the conversations were "hot" earlier this week at the height of the Porter fiasco, but that they seem to have cooled down -- at least for the moment.
Multiple people who spoke with the President on Thursday and Friday said he offered no indications he was preparing to fire anyone right away. Kelly was standing a few paces from the President as he praised Porter's work in the Oval Office, as was Hicks, the communications director who Porter has been dating.
The details that have emerged about Kelly and McGahn portray a West Wing that largely overlooked the claims that Porter physically and emotionally battered the women during their marriages to him, choosing instead to believe Porter's version of events that his exes were attempting a smear campaign. Over the past six months, Porter saw his role in the White House dramatically elevated from behind-the-scenes functionary to one of Trump's chief gatekeepers.
Porter denies his ex-wives' claims of abuse. He resigned on Wednesday and cleaned out his desk on Thursday. Trump pointed to Porter's denials in defending his former aide at the White House on Friday.
"I was surprised by it, but we certainly wish him well and it's a tough time for him," Trump said during a last-minute photo-op. "He did a very good job when he was in the White House. And we hope he has a wonderful career and he will have a great career ahead of him. But it was very sad when we heard about it and certainly he's also very sad now."
Porter close with Kelly, McGahn
Porter had a close working relationship with both Kelly and McGahn. A lawyer, Porter was involved alongside McGahn in the legal vetting of documents before they crossed Trump's desk. McGahn saw Porter as a reliable partner and an adult, a person familiar with their relationship said, in a West Wing that has sometimes seemed like a warring playground.
The White House has refused to detail which aides knew about the alleged abuse, saying only that the full scope of the claims wasn't known until Wednesday morning, when photographs of the bruised face of one of Porter's ex-wives were published online.
"This is part of an ongoing investigation," spokesman Raj Shah said on Thursday. "We trust the background check process."
People close to McGahn, Kelly, and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin - who was also informed of the abuse allegations in the fall - say they have described feeling misled by Porter's version of events. Kelly has told people he didn't know the full extent of the allegations, and claims to have moved to have Porter fired when learning the full details.
That narrative, however, doesn't match the White House's own statements on Tuesday and Wednesday defending Porter. White House officials said that he privately encouraged Porter to remain in the job, despite the allegations going public, and that Porter resigned despite Kelly's encouragement.
Veterans of past White Houses say the current handling of the scandal has only worsened matters.
"You're supposed to cauterize the wound, and instead I think they've just made it worse almost every single day," said John Podesta, who served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and as counselor to President Barack Obama. "You want to draw a sharp line. Gen. Kelly had to be aware of that, given his nature as head of Southern Command during the rise of concern about sexual abuse and abuse in the military."
People who know him say Kelly's time in the West Wing is limited only by the length of his relationship with Trump.
"I think there is no question that John is taking fire on a number of fronts here," said Leon Panetta, another former Clinton chief of staff and former defense secretary who worked closely with Kelly during his time at the Pentagon. "Whether or not ultimately he can survive I think depends on the relationship between the President and chief of staff. If there continues to be a relationship of trust, then John will stick around. If that trust breaks down, then I suspect the President will make a change."