John Kelly has suddenly become the White House's 'agent of chaos' — and it could lead to his downfall

  • People close to President Donald Trump are torn over what should happen to White House chief of staff John Kelly.
  • Some say it'd be a "lethal" mistake for President Donald Trump to oust him.
  • Others say he needs to go for his handling of the Rob Porter scandal.


White House chief of staff John Kelly's future appears to be in question as the Rob Porter scandal continues to escalate. And President Donald Trump's allies are torn over what should be the fate of the retired Marine general who has fought to bring order to a chaotic West Wing.

Porter, the former White House staff secretary with an important behind-the-scenes job, resigned last week amid abuse allegations from two ex-wives. Kelly initially released a statement defending Porter, only to release a second statement nearly a full day after the story broke that expressed shock at photographic evidence of the alleged abuse published in the Daily Mail.

Some of Trump's allies say it would be a "lethal" mistake for the president to oust Kelly, who many feel is a stabilizing force within the White House and helped quell some of the backbiting that plagued the administration for much of its first year.

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John Kelly and Rob Porter
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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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"The president should just move on," a former Trump campaign aide told Business Insider. "Tell his team, 'Let's make sure this never happens again.' Stop prosecuting mistakes publicly. Firing Kelly would be a lethal mistake and I doubt he is even considering it."

Others say Kelly has burned his remaining credibility with this episode and should be replaced, now that he has gone from the voice of stability to the cause of chaos.

"Kelly is now just another staffer who could get fired any day of the week by Donald J. Trump," said one person close to the White House. "Not that I expect him gone today or tomorrow. This is a lesson in what happens when the stabilizing force becomes the agent of chaos."

Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House communications director, tweeted Tuesday that Kelly's handling of the scandal was "inexcusable."

"Kelly must resign," he wrote.

'Much ado about nothing'

Several top White House officials have sought to squash the idea that Kelly's job is in jeopardy. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, deputy press secretary Raj Shah, legislative affairs director Marc Short, and Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, have all in recent days either denied that Trump is seeking to replace Kelly or have expressed skepticism over reporting that Kelly could be on the way out.

"I think all the stories about replacing Gen. Kelly are from people who are unhappy they've lost access to the president," Mulvaney told Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday." "It's much ado about nothing."

Thomson ReutersSome of those stories included Vanity Fair reporting Thursday that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were discussing possible replacements for Kelly and that former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski called Trump and told him to fire the chief of staff.

The Washington Post reported Tuesday that much of Kelly's own colleagues have lost faith in him. One White House official described Kelly to the Post as a "big fat liar."

All week, names of his potential replacements have been floated: chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, Republican Rep. Mark Meadows, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and Mulvaney himself. One outside adviser to the president even suggested that Trump should consider naming Conway as his chief of staff, rumors she had to publicly refute last weekend.

Publicly, some of Trump's closest allies have held little back in their criticism of the chief of staff. Lewandowski, for instance, told Fox News radio host Todd Starnes that the "critical mistake was that Gen. Kelly and [White House press secretary] Sarah Huckabee Sanders put out these steadfast statements supporting Mr. Porter before all of the facts of the case were known."

Lewandowski added there were "multiple indications that people in the building had been made aware of this for at least the better part of six months or longer."

"That is the inexcusable part," he continued, adding, "At the end of the day, the chief of staff is the one responsible for the staff of the White House and I think it's fair to say this particular issue was not handled to the best of the White House's ability."

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another prominent ally, insisted that the public needs to hear from Kelly as to exactly what he knew about Porter and when he knew it.

"And we haven't heard that directly from him yet," he told ABC News's George Stephanopoulos. "And I think the president needs to hear that before he can make an evaluation of competence. In the end, George, this is about competence. And you have to, as the chief of staff, be able to competently run the place. If there's allegations against him, the president is going to have to make that call."

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Notable people who have been fired or resigned from Trump's administration
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Notable people who have been fired or resigned from Trump's administration

White House Communications Director Hope Hicks reportedly announced her resignation after testifying about her job and being required to tell "white lies."

(Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned from his position on July 5, 2018 after a number of ethics scandals.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Rob Porter resigned as White House staff secretary in February 2018 amid abuse allegations made by his ex-wives.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired by President Trump in March 2018.

(Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

White House Counsel Don McGahn

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

H.R. McMaster was replaced by John Bolton as national security advisor in March 2018.

(Photo by Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images)

White House aide Kelly Sadler left her position in June 2018 after reportedly mocking Sen. John McCain.

(REUTERS/Leah Millis)

Director of the National Economic Council Gary Cohn announced his resignation in March 2018 after becoming a key architect of the 2017 tax overhaul 

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

Sally Yates was fired from her post as acting attorney general when she refused to enforce President Trump's travel ban. 

(Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser in February after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his interactions with Russian officials. 

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

President Trump announced David Shulkin was out as secretary of veterans affairs by sending a tweet announcing he had nominated his personal physican, Ronny Jackson, to replace him on March 28, 2018.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Trump fired FBI Director James Comey in early May.

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer resigned in July.

(June 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

Former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus resigned in July.

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Former advisor to President Donald Trump Steve Bannon resigned in August.

(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Anthony Scaramucci, former White House communications director was fired in July after just 10 days on the job. 

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Trump fired Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh amid White House leaks in April.

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria/Files)

Former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price resigned in late September. 

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

White House aide Omarosa Manigault insists she resigned and was not fired from her role in December 2017.

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

President Trump fired U.S. Attorney in Manhattan Preet Bharara in March.

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

Mike Dubke resigned as White House communications director in late May.

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Walter Shaub, former Director of the United States Office of Government Ethics in Washington, DC resigned in July.

(Photo Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

White House deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka resigned in August 2017. 

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

Rick Dearborn, White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Legislative Affairs, left the White House in December 2017.

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

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'It was all done right'

There have been contradictory accounts presented about Kelly's handling of the allegations against Porter. Porter's ex-wives claimed as part of the Daily Mail story that he physically and mentally abused them in their marriages. Both ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, provided the Daily Mail with photographic evidence of the alleged abuse. Porter has denied his ex-wives allegations.

Two senior officials told The Washington Post that Kelly held a meeting in which he instructed top staffers to describe the lead-up to Porter's resignation from the White House in a contradictory way to the administration's previous accounts. He told the staffers to say that he took action to remove Porter within 40 minutes of first learning of credible allegations that he physically and mentally abused his two ex-wives, The Post said.

Jonathan Ernst/ReutersOther reporting suggested that Kelly was aware of the allegations for weeks at the very least, as they were preventing Porter from being able to obtain a permanent security clearance. On Sunday, Axios reported that Porter has told associates he "never misrepresented anything" to Kelly, contradicting the chief of staff's statements on what he knew and when.

On Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the bureau alerted the White House to problems with Porter's background check months ago, throwing significant doubt into Kelly's version of events.

For his part, the crisis has only seemed to prompt Kelly to dig in and defend his stature.

On Monday, Kelly told The Wall Street Journal that he thought the administration had done nothing wrong in its handling of the Porter fallout.

"It was all done right," he insisted.

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