The Memo: Porter saga exposes bare tensions in Trump’s White House

The Trump White House is struggling to quell a controversy over allegations of domestic abuse even as the furor enters its second week.

The story began last Tuesday, when both of then-staff secretary Rob Porter’s ex-wives publicly accused him of abuse. Since then, Porter has resigned and a second staff member, speechwriter David Sorensen, has departed amid broadly similar allegations.

But the administration has been unable to move past the story. 

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In part, that’s because several unanswered questions remain, such as the ramifications of Porter’s failure to get a full security clearance and the specifics of what senior White House staff knew and when they knew it.

The saga has left some Trump loyalists expressing deep frustration.

“I do think there are some serious questions about the professional nature of the communications shop,” one source in President TrumpDonald TrumpCuban embassy in Paris attacked by gasoline bombs Trump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios Trump endorses Ken Paxton over George P. Bush in Texas attorney general race MORE’s orbit told The Hill. “We are Day Six into this controversy and it still hasn’t been resolved.”

A GOP strategist with ties to the White House complained: “It’s been a very chaotic few days and they don’t have their story straight. That’s either because someone is telling the truth and someone isn’t, or because there are varying degrees of the truth of what happened.”

The actions of White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE have been a particular focus.

Kelly defended Porter when the allegations first came to light, praising him as “a man of true integrity and honor.” 

Critics argued that Kelly’s closeness with Porter clouded his judgment. There had been speculation in Trump circles before the scandal broke that Kelly might move to install Porter as his deputy.

Further complicating the matter, Porter is reportedly dating White House communications director Hope HicksHope HicksUPDATED: McEnany, Fox News talks on pause Trump selects Hicks, Bondi, Grenell and other allies for positions Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis tests positive for coronavirus MORE.

Within 24 hours, however, Porter had resigned and a statement from Kelly stressed that “there is no place for domestic violence in our society.”

Compounding the difficulty, Kelly reportedly later told senior staff that he sought to remove Porter within 40 minutes of knowing there were credible allegations against him.

The Washington Post first reported on that directive, also noting that the claim “contradicts both the public record and accounts from numerous other White House officials in recent days.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was pressed repeatedly on the Porter matter during a tense media briefing on Monday. Sanders acknowledged that there were “some things we could have done better” after the allegations first came to light. 

But Sanders refused to be drawn into a discussion of exactly what the White House knew, and when specific people knew it. 

Several questions were asked pertaining to the response of White House counsel Don McGahn, who appears to have been aware of allegations against Porter for several months.

“I’m not going to get into the specific details of how the process works,” Sanders said.

Some Republicans expressed sympathy for the positions figures like Sanders find themselves in.

“I think they did the best they could with a very difficult hand,” said Rob Jesmer, a former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. 

Referring to the lack of clarity around the events, he added, “Generally speaking, in these types of deals you are trying to answer the press and do fact-checking internally in real time — and that’s complicated in a highly sensitive matter.”

The episode has laid bare some of the tensions within the White House and reopened wounds in the broader Trump World. 

During the reign of Kelly’s predecessor, Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusEx-Sen. Cory Gardner joins lobbying firm Democrats claim vindication, GOP cries witch hunt as McGahn finally testifies Biden's is not a leaky ship of state — not yet MORE, as chief of staff, various factions in the White House fought among themselves, often airing their disputes in the media.

After Kelly took on the role last July, the amount of dirty linen being aired in public declined. 

But Kelly’s attempts to impose order on the West Wing also involved sharply curtailing access to the president. A number of high-profile aides also departed.

That has led to some fraught dynamics amid the current controversy. Few people dispute that Kelly made sizable missteps. On the other hand, defenders of the retired Marine general suggest his enemies are using the controversy opportunistically.

“Those who now have to fall within the lines of the chain of command may not be necessarily happy with Gen. Kelly’s new structure, and that may have caused some of the knives to come out when they saw him weakened,” said the GOP strategist with White House ties, who asked for anonymity to discuss these matters candidly.

“There has been a stumble, and there are those who would like to see him fall because they would like to get back into the White House,” this source added.

Some sources were predicting that Kelly could be in real trouble last week, and there have been reports in multiple outlets that Trump has been sounding out potential replacements such as White House budget director Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyHeadhunters having hard time finding jobs for former Trump officials: report Trump holdovers are denying Social Security benefits to the hardest working Americans Mulvaney calls Trump's comments on Capitol riot 'manifestly false' MORE, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyTrump Jr. inches past DeSantis as most popular GOP figure in new poll: Axios GOP lawmakers request Cuba meeting with Biden House rejects GOP effort to seat McCarthy's picks for Jan. 6 panel MORE (R-Calif.) and House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsTrump to Pence on Jan. 6: 'You don't have the courage' Trump said whoever leaked information about stay in White House bunker should be 'executed,' author claims 'Just say we won,' Giuliani told Trump aides on election night: book MORE (R-N.C.).

There was some pushback on those reports at the weekend, however, with Trump aide Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayAides who clashed with Giuliani intentionally gave him wrong time for Trump debate prep: book 7 conservative women who could replace Meghan McCain on 'The View' Karen Pence confirms move back to Indiana: 'No place like home' MORE asserting that the president had “full faith” in his chief of staff during an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union.”

The furor is the rare White House episode that does not revolve around Trump himself. But he inserted himself into it over the weekend, tweeting a demand for “due process” and lamenting how “lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.”

His words were widely interpreted as a defense of Porter and Sorensen. Trump was also criticized in some quarters for not expressing sympathy for the women making the allegations.

“Above all, the president supports victims of domestic violence and believes everyone should be treated fairly and with due process,” Sanders emphasized at the Monday media briefing — a statement that she said had been directly dictated by Trump.

As with so much else since the allegations first came to light, however, those words seemed unlikely to end the controversy.

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