WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump at last broke his silence Wednesday to explicitly denounce domestic violence in the wake of allegations that a top White House aide had abused two former wives. Chief of staff John Kelly, under fire for mishandling the matter, stayed largely out of sight, his future in doubt and the White House in tumult.
The chaos surrounding the departure of aide Rob Porter put a harsh spotlight on Kelly, the retired general who was brought on last summer to instill military-like discipline in the free-wheeling West Wing. Questions persisted about what and when Kelly knew about the abuse allegations against Porter, who resigned as staff secretary last week after the accusations became public.
West Wing aides have had their faith in the chief of staff shaken, and morale has plunged to levels not seen since last spring’s firing of FBI Director James Comey and the August uproar over Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacists after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
This White House scandal erupted initially without the president’s involvement. But Trump fed the fury last week when he defended Porter and questioned the #MeToo movement that sprang up in recent months to protest the mistreatment of many women.
In Trump’s first comments after Porter resigned, he praised his former aide. Next, he appeared to cast doubt on the ex-wives’ allegations by tweeting: “Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.” Finally, on Wednesday, Trump said the words that Democrats and Republicans alike had been listening for:
“I am totally opposed to domestic violence and everybody here knows that,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “I am totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind. Everyone knows that, and it almost wouldn’t even have to be said. So now you hear it, but you all know it.”
The denunciation of domestic violence was greeted with relief by some West Wing aides. But a sense of unease about Kelly’s fate persisted.
For months, Kelly – with help from Porter – had established a semblance of stability in a White House often rattled by an unpredictable president. That has eroded in a week’s time, as accounts about the handling of the Porter matter continue to shift and some aides come to believe Kelly lied to save face and save his job.
Trump has complained to confidants that Kelly let the scandal spin out of control and that the constantly shifting narratives make the White House – and, by extension, Trump himself – look amateurish and incompetent, according to one person familiar with the discussions but not authorized to discuss them publicly.
The president has floated names of possible replacements for Kelly, including National Economic Council head Gary Cohn, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and businessman and GOP heavyweight Wayne Berman.
There was no sign that a move was imminent, according to four people with knowledge of Trump’s recent conversations. The president is known to frequently poll his advisers about the performance of senior staff but is often reluctant to actually fire aides.
McCarthy tried to douse speculation about a possible change, saying: “I have not spoken to the president about anything about a job, and I never have. And there is no job opening.”
Berman has not been approached about the job, according to a person familiar with his thinking but not authorized to discuss it publicly. Mulvaney has previously denied angling for the post.
Kelly has indicated he would step aside if he lost the faith of the president. But he has not offered to resign, according to a White House official and an outside adviser. Neither was authorized to discuss personnel matters publicly and spoke only on condition of anonymity.
Kelly, a dark cross on his forehead to mark Ash Wednesday, kept his distance from reporters as he helped manage the White House response to the mass shooting at a Florida school. And many questions about the matter went unanswered, as the daily press briefing was postponed repeatedly until, in the wake of the shooting, it was canceled completely.
And while Trump himself tweeted condolences about the shooting, he did not go on-camera or address the nation, a marked contrast from the emotional appearance by President Barack Obama following the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
A retired four-star Marine general, Kelly took the post last July and immediately tried to rein in a West Wing that was riven by rivalries and plagued by inexperience He fired attention-seeking aides such as Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, curtailed access to Trump for outside advisers and insisted that even powerful West Wing staffers, like Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, receive his blessing to reach the president.
But as Kelly shook up the West Wing and had some success at clamping down on public backstabbing, he also made some enemies inside and outside the building. They were quick to pounce on a vulnerable chief of staff, leaking negative stories about him this week.
A number of aides who earlier had rallied around Kelly were dismayed and disillusioned by his handling of the domestic abuse allegations. Officials, up to press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, took to couching their comments with the caveat they did not have firsthand knowledge of some of the details.
At a senior staff meeting last Friday, Kelly tried to press his own timeline concerning Porter in a way that played up his decisiveness once he learned the details of allegations, according to some aides. But Kelly, aides said, had encouraged Porter to try to weather the initial allegations.
But White House officials had known for months of at least the broad charges of abuse against Porter by his ex-wives, as revealed Tuesday by FBI Director Christopher Wray. Wray’s testimony to lawmakers contradicted the accounts of West Wing officials.
The Porter drama has placed a renewed focus on the role of White House Counsel Don McGahn, who first informed Kelly about Porter’s situation last fall.
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