The Memo: Knives come out for Kelly

Sources close to the White House say chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE has suffered a serious blow to his standing from the bungled resignation of staff secretary Rob Porter, who has been accused of domestic abuse. 

Kelly’s most vehement critics even suggest the episode could herald his demise within the administration. 

“We’ll see this as an inflection point when he is fired,” said one source within President TrumpDonald John TrumpSchiff: Surveillance warrant docs show that Nunes memo 'misrepresented and distorted these applications' Chicago detention facility under investigation following allegations of abuse of migrant children Ex-Trump aide: Surveillance warrants are 'complete ignorance' and 'insanity' MORE’s orbit. The source, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, blasted Kelly as “tone deaf and politically inept.”

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A second source close to the Republican Party complained, regarding Kelly, that “everybody knows he limits access and information flow to POTUS on a daily basis; this could be the beginning of the end of that — and maybe Kelly as chief.” 

Such predictions can be motivated in part by personal rivalries. Some people who had become accustomed to having relatively free-flowing access to Trump have found their contact sharply reduced since Kelly replaced Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusThe Memo: Putin furor sparks new questions on Kelly’s future Wisconsin GOP Senate candidate rips his own parents for donations to Dems Wisconsin GOP Senate hopeful hit by ad highlighting Democratic past MORE as chief of staff last July. 

But Kelly's woes deepened late Thursday when The Washington Post reported that White House counsel Don McGahn had first informed Kelly of the abuse allegations against Porter last fall. Instead of firing Porter, according to the Post, Kelly gave him a bigger role.

White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah insisted that Kelly retained Trump’s full confidence during a media briefing on Thursday. 

But Shah had a thankless task in trying to defend a White House, and a chief of staff, that had expressed total confidence in Porter amid allegations of domestic abuse by two ex-wives — only to cut him loose within hours. 

In a statement sent via the White House pool reporter at 3:54 p.m. Wednesday, Porter was praised as “effective in his role.” The statement added, “the President and Chief of Staff have full confidence in his abilities and his performance.” 

At 9:31 p.m., a statement under Kelly’s name was released, noting that he had accepted Porter’s resignation and that “there is no place for domestic violence in our society.” 

The furor is so politically explosive in part because the allegations are so disturbing. Both of Porter’s ex-wives have alleged that he was physically abusive to them.  

The Daily Mail’s website published photos of his first wife, Colbie Holderness, with a bruised eye. She said the injury had been inflicted by Porter, whom she accused of punching her while they were on vacation in Italy. His second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, told the same news organization that Porter had pulled her from the shower to scream at her. 

In a statement that was read aloud at the White House media briefing on Wednesday, Porter called the allegations “simply false” and “vile.”  

But those allegations also seemingly stopped Porter from getting a security clearance, even though he had daily access to the president. Shah said Porter was working under an interim clearance and insisted that the full clearance was never denied. "His background investigation was ongoing," he said.

The difficulties for the White House were further complicated because Porter is reported to be dating Hope HicksHope Charlotte HicksTrump does not take questions as he departs for weekend NYT: Cohen taped Trump on payment to ex-Playboy model 'Daily Show' trolls Trump over Pruitt's resignation MORE, the communications director and one of Trump’s closest aides. Shah said Hicks had recused herself from some discussions regarding the matter. 

Kelly was initially emphatic in his defense of Porter. Kelly at first told the Daily Mail that Porter was “a man of true integrity and honor” and added that he was “proud to serve alongside him.”

That statement, in particular, has drawn the ire of Kelly’s critics.

“Why was POTUS never informed, and why did Kelly go over the top in his defense of this guy, knowing the facts?" the source close to the Republican Party said. 

Some voices that are more defensive of Kelly argue that his initial response needs to be taken in the context of Porter’s denials — and they say there is confusion about when Kelly saw the most compelling evidence regarding the allegations.

“From what I understand from public reports, Porter was an asset and — again, from what I understand from public reports — General Kelly had not seen the photos,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign adviser. 

Nunberg expressed horror at the allegations against Porter but argued that, within the original context, Kelly had “just showed loyalty to a trusted employee.” 

Others within Trump’s circle are not so forgiving. They say Porter’s closeness to Kelly is emblematic of a broader tendency on the part of the chief of staff to play favorites. The retired Marine general credited the younger man with helping him bring a semblance of order to an administration that had been chaotic and riven by factionalism. 

Several sources told The Hill that Kelly had been grooming Porter for a more senior position than the one he held. 

Roger StoneRoger Jason StoneMueller's attorneys want to question former Roger Stone employee known as 'Manhattan Madam' Mueller probing Roger Stone following Russian hacker indictment: report DNC claims Secret Service blocked attempt to deliver lawsuit against Kushner MORE, a Trump confidant for decades, even suggested that Kelly saw Porter as a protegé who could eventually take his own job. By Stone’s account, this “explained why he promoted him despite reports of spousal abuse.” 

Other sources said this was inaccurate, but that Kelly had been angling to promote Porter to deputy chief of staff, a position that has been vacant for several months. 

By one account, Porter would have been a more popular choice, until the abuse allegations came to light, than another Kelly favorite — Jim Carroll, an administration lawyer who is not so well-known at a personal level among Trump’s inner circle.

Another source who has worked in the administrations of past Republican presidents expressed sympathy for Kelly’s initial response to the allegations against Porter.

“When you have such a small staff, it becomes a family and you all care for one another. You are around each other 24/7 and sometimes that clouds judgment,” this person said.  

But, this source added, “You have to adhere to a high standard regardless of who the people are. When General Kelly became privy to this information, he needed to lower the boom.” 

Kelly’s internal rivals note that this is far from the first controversy that the former Homeland Security secretary has stirred up. Earlier this week, he referred to people who were eligible for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program but did not apply as “too afraid [or] too lazy to get off their asses.” 

Perhaps more damaging to Kelly’s working relationship with Trump was a remark the chief of staff made during an interview with Bret Baier of Fox News's “Special Report” last month. 

Kelly told Baier that Trump had not been “fully informed” when he promised to build his famous southern border wall during the 2016 campaign, and had since “evolved.”

Three different sources said Kelly’s performance in the interview had infuriated Trump.

Given Kelly's resume, he is not likely to be cowed by such problems. But the sheer messiness of the Porter controversy has handed his detractors a sizable gift — and they seem eager to make the most of it.

“He doesn’t deserve the privilege of sitting in that office,” said one. 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.