The Memo: Frustrated Republicans urge White House to turn the page

Controversy consumed the White House again on Tuesday when sworn testimony from the director of the FBI contradicted previous administration statements regarding Rob Porter, the staff secretary who resigned last week amid accusations of domestic abuse.

The furor has now rumbled on for a full seven days with no immediate end in sight, frustrating Republicans who see the controversy as a self-inflicted wound.

“Very clearly [the White House] response has been complicated by the fact that the version of events seems to change every day,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director of the Republican National Committee (RNC), “which is why, a week later, this is still the dominant topic of conversation in the news.”

ADVERTISEMENT
Another source close to the Republican Party complained, “It’s a total death spiral. The White House has got to come back with something.”

Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday morning, FBI Director Christopher Wray said that the bureau had delivered a partial report on problems with Porter to the White House back in March — earlier than the administration had previously acknowledged being aware of such issues.

Wray also said the FBI had closed its file on Porter last month. This appeared to contradict earlier assertions from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and from her deputy, Raj Shah, who had said the probe was “ongoing.”

The problem for the White House, said former RNC head Michael Steele, “starts with an inability get their story straight. And if they expect an FBI they have been trashing for the past year to give them cover, that’s not the way it’s going to work.”

At Tuesday’s White House media briefing, Sanders sought to minimize the apparent discrepancy, arguing that even though the FBI file on Porter’s security clearance may have been closed, the White House Personnel Security Office was still considering the matter.

Sanders and her communications team is widely perceived as having been placed in a difficult situation by other, more senior figures, including chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE.

Kelly defended Porter in robust terms whenever the allegations first surfaced, describing him as “a man of true integrity and honor.” 

He eventually accepted the aide’s resignation — but then ignited further controversy when, in a staff meeting first reported by The Washington Post, he told senior staff to communicate that he had pressed Porter to go within 40 minutes of discovering that the allegations against him were credible.

The broader picture is one in which Kelly was perceived to be close to Porter and was said to be eyeing him as a potential deputy chief of staff. 

Complicating the situation further, Porter is reportedly dating White House communications director Hope HicksHope Charlotte Hicks'Daily Show' trolls Trump over Pruitt's resignation Ex-Fox News exec Bill Shine to join White House Ex-Trump aide pushes for Hope Hicks as chief of staff: Trump will 'listen to women more than men’ MORE.

The source close to the Republican Party drew a parallel between Kelly’s conduct and that of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, who resigned after reportedly misleading Vice President Pence about the nature of conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to the United States.

“I don’t know how Kelly and Hope Hicks continue to have their jobs,” the source said. “They sent people out to lie. How is it different from Flynn?”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL freezes policy barring players from protesting during anthem McConnell spokesman on Putin visit: 'There is no invitation from Congress' Petition urges University of Virginia not to hire Marc Short MORE has reportedly sounded out several people as potential replacements for Kelly, including White House budget director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyOn The Money: Trump rips Fed over rate hikes | Dems fume as consumer agency pick refuses to discuss border policy | Senate panel clears Trump IRS nominee Trump pick to head watchdog agency is who consumers need Dems fume as Trump's consumer bureau pick refuses to discuss role in border policy MORE and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyHouse leaders clash over resolution backing ICE House backs resolution expressing support for ICE House GOP reverses, cancels vote on Dem bill to abolish ICE MORE (R-Calif.).

But White House aides, including senior counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayMerriam-Webster provides meanings of 'yes' and 'no' after Trump's Russia comment Trump campaign Virginia chairman asks question in White House briefing Watchdog: First lady spokeswoman may have violated Hatch Act with ‘MAGA’ tweet MORE, have insisted Trump continues to have “full faith” in Kelly. 

It emerged on Tuesday that Kelly, asked by a Wall Street Journal reporter the previous day whether the response to the Porter allegations could have been handled better, replied, “No, it was all done right.”

Sanders avoided endorsing that position at Tuesday’s media briefing, instead implicitly acknowledging that the White House response was flawed.

Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who was communications director for Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioSenate GOP attempts to wave Trump off second Putin summit GOP senator: We should accept Trump's 'apology' for Russian election interference comments Controversial Trump judicial nominee withdraws MORE’s (R-Fla.) 2016 presidential campaign, said, “I don’t blame the communicators here. Communicators are only as effective as the facts they are presented with.”

But Conant also underlined the gravity of the situation that the administration now faces.

“The White House’s inability to turn the corner is turning a big problem into a major crisis,” he said.

Across the board, there is a realization among Republicans and conservatives that the White House needs to get its story straight  — something it has not done for seven days. 

But there is also a recognition that Kelly’s mistakes are being seized upon by people who have their own personal motivations to attack him.

Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciMegyn Kelly grills Sean Spicer over whether he stands by past White House claims Trump: Media only says I was 'rude' to NATO leaders, ignores 'the money' Trump criticizes media amid growing criticism of his handling of Putin MORE, the former White House communications director who was fired by Kelly after 10 days on the job, called for Kelly to resign in a Tuesday tweet. 

“Based on FBI testimony, WH Chief of Staff 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. Kelly must resign,” Scaramucci wrote.

The controversy is now so long-running and so inflamed that some Republicans argue it requires the public intervention of the president himself.

Doing so would place Trump in the unusual position of quelling a controversy rather than stoking one. 

He has not been personally central to the current furor, although he did tweet a demand for “due process” over the weekend, which was widely interpreted as a defense of Porter and another staffer who resigned amid broadly similar allegations, speechwriter David Sorensen.

Trump has been criticized for not directly expressing sympathy for the women who complained that they suffered violence at the hands of the two men.

If he were to do so, Heye of the RNC said, that could have the power to finally put the current controversy to rest.

“A very strong statement on domestic violence has been missing from all of this,” he said. “Nothing is more powerful than hearing those words from the president.”

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