Rob Porter's abuse scandal is roiling the White House to its core, and the knives are coming out for John Kelly

  • The Rob Porter scandal has shaken the White House.
  • It appears as if knives are out for chief of staff John Kelly.
  • Many questions remain about who knew what and when about Porter, alleged of physically and mentally abusing both of his ex-wives.
  • The White House admitted it could've handled its response to the episode better.


The latest White House scandal snowballed into an avalanche, roiling some of the highest-ranking and most prominent West Wing staffers in the process.

The White House initially stood by former staff secretary Rob Porter after he was alleged of physical and mental abuse by both of his ex-wives, one of whom provided photos of a black eye she claimed he gave her. Publicly, the administration even offered rare contrition for how it handled the situation.

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John Kelly and Rob Porter
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to depart with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard the Marine One helicopter from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 29, 2017. Picture taken November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to depart with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard the Marine One helicopter from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 29, 2017. Picture taken November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to depart with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard the Marine One helicopter from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 29, 2017. Picture taken November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to depart with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard the Marine One helicopter from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 29, 2017. Picture taken November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly walks with White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter to depart with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard the Marine One helicopter from the White House in Washington, U.S. November 29, 2017. Picture taken November 29, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter (R) and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) walk to board Air Force One with U.S. President Donald Trump en route to New Jersey from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. August 4, 2017. Picture taken August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter (R) and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) walk to board Air Force One with U.S. President Donald Trump en route to New Jersey from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. August 4, 2017. Picture taken August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter (R) and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) walk to board Air Force One with U.S. President Donald Trump en route to New Jersey from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. August 4, 2017. Picture taken August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) leads White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter off of Air Force One as they arrive with U.S. President Donald Trump (not pictured) at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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"I think it's fair to say that we all could have done better over the last few hours — or last few days — in dealing with this situation," said Raj Shah, the White House deputy press secretary.

But questions abounded as to who knew what — and when — as the White House fumbled its response.

The focus now lies on Porter's inability to obtain a full security clearance and when White House chief of staff John Kelly and other top officials were first made aware of the allegations. Additionally, Porter's exit means one of the most powerful members of the West Wing inner-circle — labeled "indispensable" by one Republican strategist — who was tasked with a broad range of critical responsibilities, will need to be replaced.

Kelly's enemies now want 'to get rid of him'

Porter and Kelly clearly saw eye-to-eye on how to run the White House. But knives starting to come out for Kelly, there's a chance this growing scandal could knock out both the forces many credit with bringing a sense of stability to the administration.

Kelly's "kind of on the hook now already given the controversies from this week," Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, CEO and founder of the Potomac Strategy Group, told Business Insider. "I think the story is bad, a lot of his enemies are using it against him to try to get rid of him."

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John Kelly in his White House role
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks on his phone in a hallway outside the room where U.S. President Donald Trump was meeting with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly delivers speech at the Secretary of Interior Building in Mexico City, Mexico, July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) before a briefing on hurricane relief efforts in a hangar at Muniz Air National Guard Base in Carolina, Puerto Rico, U.S. October 3, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly speaks about immigration reform at a press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., June 29, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House senior advisor Jared Kushner look on as U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks before meeting with Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and his delegation at the White House in Washington, U.S. September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly testifies before a Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S. May 24, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly speaks about border security during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 2, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly delivers a statement accompanied by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) at the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mexico City, Mexico February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) and First Lady Melania Trump (lower right) listen as U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (R) shows the time to U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley (L) as they attend a session on reforming the United Nations at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (C) stands in an adjacent cabin as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters in the press cabin aboard Air Force One on his way to Washington after viewing damage from Hurricane Irma in Florida, U.S. September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly listens as U.S. President Donald Trump makes remarks to reporters before meeting with a bipartisan group of members of Congress at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (L) and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway (R) attend Kuwait's Emir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah and U.S. President Donald Trump's news conference after their meetings at the White House in Washington, U.S. September 7, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly stands before a Medal of Honor ceremony in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., July 31, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly (R) arrives with fellow staff to board Air Force One with U.S. President Trump for travel to New Jersey from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. August 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly looks down at his phone as he boards Air Force One in Hagerstown, Maryland, U.S., hours after it was announced that Trump Senior Adviser Steve Bannon left the administration August 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly looks on as he listens to Mexico's Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong (not pictured) delivering a joint message at the Secretary of Interior Building in Mexico City, Mexico, July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly arrives to Secretary of Interior Building before addressing the media, in Mexico City, Mexico, July 7, 2017. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly testifies before a Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., June 6, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly takes questions from the media while addressing the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly leans on the Resolute Desk during a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly speaks during a daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
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In other words, the people "who feel boxed out, feel like they aren't getting the access they want and see him as a problem in that respect," Mackowiak said. "And it sounds like maybe Ivanka is now involved in that because it looks like her role has now been narrowed a bit."

Vanity Fair reported Thursday that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are discussing possible replacements at chief of staff. Trump, the publication reported, was "f------ pissed" that he was not aware of the severity of the allegations against Porter until Ivanka showed him the Daily Mail photos.

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White House senior advisors Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump arrive for U.S. President Donald Trump's State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
White House senior advisors Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump arrive for U.S. President Donald Trump's State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Leah Millis
U.S. President Donald Trump's relatives, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, watch during the president's State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
U.S. President Donald Trump's relatives, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, watch during the president's State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner (L) and Ivanka Trump arrive for the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 30, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner (L) and Ivanka Trump arrive for the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 30, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Nicholas Kamm (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
Senior Advisor to the President Jared Kushner (C-L) and Ivanka Trump arrive for the State of the Union address at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 30, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30: Eric Trump and Lara Trump (top L) and Jared Kusner and Ivanka Trump attend the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives January 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. This is the first State of the Union address given by U.S. President Donald Trump and his second joint-session address to Congress. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30: Jared Kusner and Ivanka Trump attend the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives January 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. This is the first State of the Union address given by U.S. President Donald Trump and his second joint-session address to Congress. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30: Jared Kusner and Ivanka Trump attend the State of the Union address in the chamber of the U.S. House of Representatives January 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. This is the first State of the Union address given by U.S. President Donald Trump and his second joint-session address to Congress. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
US President adivsor Jared Kushner (C) and his wife Ivanka Trump listen during the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill January 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 30: Jared Kushner, left, and Ivanka Trump listen to the State of the Union speech before members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol on January 30, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Jared Kushner, senior White House adviser, center left, and Ivanka Trump, assistant to U.S. President Donald Trump, center right, applaud ahead of a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018. President Donald Trump sought to connect his presidency to the nation's prosperity in his first State of the Union address, arguing that the U.S. has arrived at a 'new American moment' of wealth and opportunity. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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Lewandowski reportedly has already called Trump to fire Kelly in the aftermath of the Porter ordeal.

Meanwhile, a source told PBS that White House staffers are surprised and dismayed that Kelly strongly defended Porter initially, before the photos emerged publicly, when he said Porter is "a man of true integrity and honor."

Who knew what, when?

Multiple outlets reported Wednesday that several top officials, including Kelly, were aware of the allegations against Porter for months, though Trump just learned of them this week. The officials were reportedly aware as early as August that the alleged abuse was preventing Porter from obtaining a security clearance. 

But no action was taken, and Porter's importance only grew in the administration. CNN reported he was one of a handful of aides who helped draft Trump's State of the Union address. 

Multiple high-ranking politicians called for Kelly's ouster as chief of staff. 

"If it is true that President Trump’s Chief of Staff John Kelly covered up Staff Secretary Rob Porter’s record of domestic violence then he should resign immediately," Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich tweeted.

Fellow Democrat Jon Tester told CNN that Kelly "needs to be held accountable" if he's "covering this up."

"He better have a really good reason," Tester said. "Otherwise, he's gone, too." 

Mackowiak said it "would be a mistake" to oust Kelly, who he said has "done a great job under very difficult circumstances."

But if Kelly was "presented with really credible information from the FBI that these allegations were correct," that "would be pretty damaging."

How did Porter manage without a permanent security clearance?

After the most recent major staff shakeup over the summer, Porter emerged as a major power player in the administration. Though he had served in the White House since the onset of Trump's term in office, Porter's profile began to rise once Kelly took over, becoming the chief of staff's right hand.

He was tasked with vetting and filtering what reached Trump's desk as well as playing an increasingly large role in the administration's policy agenda. For months, Porter kept a low profile in a White House filled with outsize personalities, though roughly a half-dozen former Senate colleagues told Business Insider in September that many on Capitol Hill were thrilled that Porter was working within the administration.

"Porter had really made himself fairly indispensable," Mackowiak said. "And they really didn't want to lose an indispensable person."

That appeared to play a role in the administration's strong defense of Porter after the allegations — which Porter has denied — first emerged.

But for as indispensable as Porter had become, his inability to obtain a full security clearance left observers stunned that he was able to remain in that position — one which involves frequent viewing of classified material.

"The fact that the staff secretary, the person that sees every piece of paper that goes the president, from kids’ letters to top-secret reports, has been working without a clearance is astonishing," Reed Galen, deputy campaign manager for Republican Sen. John McCain's 2008 campaign, told Business Insider. 

He said the fact Porter had remained in his position was proof the Trump White House was still "acting as if they’re still running a family owned real estate business."

Shah, the White House spokesman, said Porter was operating on an interim clearance while his background investigation was ongoing. Still, the idea that Porter could go about his job on an interim clearance left Mackowiak puzzled.

"So, was he seeing top secret material while only holding an interim clearance or not holding a clearance at all?" he said. "I don't know how that would've worked."

Will they be able to replace Porter without losing a step? Rick Tyler, former communications director for Republican Sen. Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign, thinks so.

"They will find someone else equally qualified who does not have a record of mental or physical abuse," he said, "which is what they should have done in the first place."

The White House admits it could've done a better job

During what has become a typically untypical White House press briefing, Shah had to answer for staffers such as White House communications director Hope Hicks and White House counsel Donald McGahn, who find themselves caught up in the ordeal as well.

Shah was asked in rapid-fire succession about whether the president still had confidence in any of these officials.

Kelly?

"Yes," Shah said.

McGahn?

"Absolutely."

Hicks?

"Yeah, absolutely."

Everyone?

Shah reiterated his earlier points.

"The president has confidence in his chief of staff, counsel, and communications director," he said.

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