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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.”

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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 HicksThe Hill's Morning Report — Presented by PhRMA — Trump heads to battleground Iowa, where GOP House members seek help Hope Hicks to become Fox chief communications officer The Hill's Morning Report — Where the Kavanaugh nomination stands 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 TrumpTrump: 'I don't trust everybody in the White House' JPMorgan CEO withdraws from Saudi conference Trump defends family separations at border MORE has reportedly sounded out several people as potential replacements for Kelly, including White House budget director Mick MulvaneyJohn (Mick) Michael MulvaneyTrump attacks Democrat in Ohio governor's race On The Money: Stocks slide for second day as Trump blames 'loco' Fed | Mulvaney calls for unity at consumer bureau | Pelosi says Dems will go after Trump tax returns Mulvaney calls for unity at consumer bureau amid racial controversy MORE and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyMcCarthy brother-in-law under scrutiny for earning federal contracts based on Native American identity claim McCarthy introduces bill to fully fund Trump's border wall On The Money: McCarthy offers bill to fully fund Trump border wall | US to press China on currency in trade talks | Mnuchin plans to go ahead with Saudi trip | How America's urban-rural divide is changing the Dems MORE (R-Calif.).

But White House aides, including senior counselor Kellyanne ConwayKellyanne Elizabeth ConwayWatchdog files Hatch Act complaint against Sanders for picture with Kanye in MAGA hat Kellyanne Conway goes after Hillary Clinton on 'dangerous' civility comments Conway attacks idea of ‘Medicare for all’ in swipe at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 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 RubioSenators pledge action on Saudi journalist’s disappearance Senators concerned as Trump official disputes UN climate change warning Rubio: Response to death of Saudi journalist 'can't be symbolic' 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 ScaramucciAnn Coulter believes Kushner wrote anonymous op-ed bashing Trump Spicer: People at White House are 'burnt out' Scaramucci: John McCain, an inspiration for a day of unity 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.