The White House lurched into full-scale crisis mode on Friday as it entered the fourth day of fallout from revelations that chief of staff John Kelly failed to remove an aide accused of domestic abuse until after the news was reported in the press.
Administration officials groused about Kelly’s poor handling of the crisis, which stemmed from allegations that staff secretary Rob Porter verbally and physically abused his two ex-wives. A handful of White House officials were aware of the allegations in broad terms for weeks – and in some cases months – before the story broke this week.
On Friday, the White House confirmed the resignation of a second official — speechwriter David Sorensen — amid abuse allegations made by his ex-wife. Sorensen’s departure was first reported by the Washington Post.
President Donald Trump himself has expressed frustration with his chief of staff in recent days, even contemplating possible replacements, but three White House aides and others close to the president said Kelly is safe for now. They noted that the president regularly complains about top staffers and quizzes friends and allies about who should join the administration, but often takes months to make any moves.
“The president has full confidence in the chief of staff,” one White House official said.
On Friday night, Kelly himself pushed back on news reports that he had expressed a willingness to resign if Trump wanted him to step down. In an interview with NBC News, he said he had not offered to leave. Multiple White House officials denied that he had even expressed openness to doing so – denials that only underscored the sensitivity around Kelly’s position in the West Wing.
The Trump White House has careened from one crisis to another since January, with the furor around the publication of Michael Wolff’s best-selling tell-all “Fire and Fury” — which sparked a public break between Trump and his former top strategist Steve Bannon — replaced by outrage sparked by Trump’s description of African countries as “shitholes,” as well as a stand-off between Trump and the FBI over the ever-present Russia investigation. In the midst of all that, the government shut down – twice.
The relentless chaos has prompted some senior officials to leave the administration in recent weeks. The latest is Rachel Brand, the number three official at the Justice Department, who resigned on Friday to join Wal-Mart, telling friends that she was concerned that her association with the Trump administration could hurt her reputation.
“She is very smart, accomplished, and talented, and wants to protect her career,” said one Brand associate.
Late Friday, the White House made a long-anticipated announcement about personnel moves in the West Wing. The list largely consisted of portfolio reassignments and title changes, doing little to allay concerns that Kelly has been unable to recruit fresh faces to replace senior officials who have left.
The changes included the nomination of Jim Carroll, who had been serving as Kelly’s de facto deputy, to serve as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, further thinning the top ranks of the White House. White House officials told POLITICO as recently as Wednesday that Kelly was pleased with Carroll’s performance in his office.
Since Tuesday night, when the Daily Mail first reported the abuse claims against Porter, top White House aides have scrambled to respond to a wave of stories revealing that Kelly, White House counsel Don McGahn and others had known for months about the broad strokes of the allegations that Porter verbally and physically abused two ex-wives. Porter resigned on Wednesday.
Overwhelmed communications staffers have had to piece together their own timeline of who knew what and when in order to respond to the stories.
Facing the fiercest criticism of his six-month tenure at the White House and the ire of Trump himself, Kelly has worked to counter the emerging narrative that he turned a blind eye to domestic abuse.
Even though he was previously aware of some of the allegations facing his staff secretary, Kelly’s allies say he didn’t fully understand the severity of the issue until he saw photographs of one of Porter’s ex-wives with a bruised eye. White House aides also assert that Kelly and other top officials felt misled by Porter’s own defense against the allegations.
Kelly defended himself in a meeting with staff on Friday, stressing hat women should feel comfortable in the White House and making the case that he sought and received Porter’s resignation almost immediately after he became fully aware of all the details of the allegations. The meeting was first reported by the Washington Post.
Kelly also sent an email to White House staff Thursday night stressing that the administration takes domestic violence “very seriously.”
As Kelly worked to clean up the mess, the president further inflamed the crisis in his first public comments about Porter.
Trump, who has long faced allegations of inappropriate behavior with women, appeared to sympathize with Porter, just as he did with failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore when women emerged last fall to accuse him of molesting them as teenagers decades ago.
Trump also neglected to mention Porter’s two ex-wives, one of whom released photographs of herself with a black eye she said Porter gave her during a trip to Italy.
“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,” Trump said in brief remarks in the Oval Office. “But it was very sad when we heard about it and certainly he’s also very sad now.”