To work in the Donald Trump White House is to careen from one scandal or self-inflicted catastrophe to the next. But few weeks of this year-old administration have been as fraught as the past seven days, aides say.
Few recall similar levels of chaos engulfing the ranks. What’s worse: Multiple senior West Wing officials have conveyed privately to The Daily Beast their fear that the ongoing Rob Porter scandal, and the intense fallout implicating top staffers, will only get worse in the days to come.
“As bad as the Comey firing,” one White House official bluntly assessed, expressing a sentiment shared this week by several senior Trump aides—that the tumult and mismanagement of the past few days is only matched by mayhem kicked off by the sacking of FBI Director James Comey in May.
Such angst echoes an even more troublesome reality playing out of public view. Aides and confidants say that trust between the internal White House departments has been damaged by the failure to adequately explain why Porter—who stands accused by two ex-wives of physical and emotional abuse—was able to stay on the job for as long as he did. There are persistent rumors that the news of Porter’s past alleged abuses was initially leaked to the press by someone inside the administration. And though the White House publicly insists that Chief of Staff John Kelly enjoys the trust and faith of the president, there are notable rumblings of discontent over his handling of the matter, in and outside of the administration.
“The question does become who knew what and how much did they tell Kelly—I think he is on some delicate ground,” Former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), a prominent Trump surrogate told The Daily Beast. “But he could move forward…Look at [Jeff] Sessions. He has gotten it behind him. There are people who have lost the president’s favor and have come back.”
“I’m gonna say yes,” Kingston added, when asked if Kelly will be there in a month. “It’s not [an] overly confident yes.”
Outside of Kelly, aides inside the administration have lobbied private criticism at the role played by White House counsel Don McGahn, who some feel has largely escaped scrutiny during the Porter saga. But perhaps no one’s standing in the West Wing has been more publicly damaged than members of the White House’s top communications team. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders and her deputy Raj Shah have dutifully toed the White House line on the unfolding scandal. But that line continues to change and has often contained contradictions.
It’s a problem that has felled past press secretaries. But those familiar with the current White House’s operations say it is particularly common for the president’s chief spokespeople to find themselves walking back public statements after the fact simply because they were not given accurate or complete information.
“Bad or incomplete information is all too often distributed internally and externally by White House staff,” said one former White House official, who requested anonymity to candidly discuss experiences in the West Wing. “For the most part it is not intentional,” the official added. But Sanders and Shah were “at the mercy of the flow of bad information.”
The White House’s shifting descriptions of what senior White House staffers did and did not know about the allegations against Porter culminated on Tuesday in an attempt to pass the buck onto career bureaucrats tasked with White House human resource responsibilities. Speaking to reporters, Sanders said that it was the White House Personnel Security Office (PSO), “staffed by career officials,” who received “what they considered to be the final background investigation report” on Porter in November. Those PSO members, Sanders added, continued the investigation into Porter up until the point he resigned. Sanders added that she did not believe—but couldn’t say ”with 100 percent certainty”—that any senior White House staffers were aware that that subsequent investigation was taking place, explaining why they were caught blindsided by the allegations.
The latest explanation was a dramatic reversal from one offered just the day before when Sanders said that the process for issues a security clearance “doesn't operate within the White House.” It also was one that former White House officials say defies credulity.
The PSO is nested under the White House’s Office of Administration, which, former White House officials say, should be run by deputy chief of staff for operations, Joe Hagin, a senior appointee. The career servants who make up its ranks are tasked with overseeing the security clearance process. But the FBI is responsible for undertaking it. And when the FBI makes its final recommendation, PSO members don’t get to decide, on their own, to keep an investigation open. At least, not without the sign off of a superior.
“The holdup surely was not because of these career officials, and the White House should not be throwing them under the bus now,” said Daniel Jacobson, a former official in the Obama White House Counsel’s office. “The real question is whether Kelly or Hagin interfered with the Personnel Security Office.”
Sanders did not respond to a request for clarification on what Hagin knew, and when.
As the Porter controversy continued to dominate the White House briefings—a week after it first erupted—concern was mounting elsewhere over the damage it would do to. Republicans on the Hill said that their agenda had not been imperiled (to the extent that one existed). But they admitted that it wasn’t doing the party’s standing much good.
“It is a shit show,” declared Rep. Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican. “A lot of people have confidence in Kelly’s ability to keep structure in the White House. But this has clearly been mishandled.” That said, Dent added that few Republican lawmakers feel that the chief of staff should be replaced. “Before it was a lot of chaos and anarchy. And who would replace him? So I’m not hearing a lot my colleagues saying, ‘Boy, he’s really got to go.’”
Others, though, have been less forgiving. Anthony Scaramucci, the former White House communications director whom Kelly fired during his first week as chief of staff, proclaimed his short-lived boss’s days numbered. “John Kelly almost certainly knew about credible allegations of domestic abuse against Rob Porter at least 6 months ago—then recently forced others to lie about that timeline. Inexcusable,” Scaramucci wrote on Twitter. “Kelly must resign.”
Many top allies of the Trump administration—some of whom are rarely, if ever, shy about talking to the press—have been vacillating between trashing Kelly off the record and ducking for cover when asked about the chief of staff’s recent job performance. “I don’t have any comment, thanks,” former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a typically chatty outside adviser to President Trump, said before hanging up after The Daily Beast asked how he thought Kelly was doing in his role.
“In one short week, John Kelly went from being the man lauded by the media for stabilizing a chaotic White House to the person most single-handedly responsible for destabilizing it,” said another Republican close to the White House. “And he has no one to blame for that but himself.”
It appears the last person in Trump-world who thinks that John Kelly has earned high marks over the last seven days is John F. Kelly himself. In an interview he gave to The Wall Street Journal on Monday, the chief of staff flatly rejected the suggestion that he might’ve handled the Porter scandal or fallout differently.
“No,” he insisted. “It was all done right.”