Rule One of any White House: Everyone in the West Wing below the president is expendable. Rule Two: Those who forget Rule One will likely become subject to it. Chief of Staff John Kelly seems to have forgotten Rule One when dealing with Rob Porter, whose former wives and at least one girlfriend told FBI investigators working on his clearance about episodes of domestic violence. Kelly left Porter in place and reportedly even increased his responsibilities without letting Donald Trump know about the political risk involved.
Small wonder, then, that Trump’s looking at his options as he tries to distance himself from the issue. What may come as a surprise is who he’s calling for advice:
Among the many people agitated this week over John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, was President Trump. And among the people the president called to express dissatisfaction, according to those close to him, was none other than Reince Priebus, the previous chief of staff, who also irritated Mr. Trump.
Priebus? Reince no doubt graciously gave his best advice to the president, but one has to wonder at the twists and turns of this White House. Priebus more or less got chased out by Anthony Scaramucci at about the same time that the Mooch forgot about Rule One last summer. It led to a trio of departures — Mooch, Priebus, and Sean Spicer, who appeared to be the happiest to get out at the time. If Trump is talking to Priebus about Kelly, that’s not a good sign, and Kelly probably knows it.
If he doesn’t yet know it, he will soon:
For now, it is Mr. Kelly who is in trouble. The president has little tolerance for aides who attract negative media attention that spills onto him, and in recent days Mr. Kelly has drawn a string of unwelcome headlines. He roiled negotiations over immigration legislation by declaring that some immigrants were “too lazy” to apply for legal status. And he initially defended a deputy accused by two ex-wives of physically abusing them.
All of which has again fired up the will-he-last speculation that has erupted periodically in the six months Mr. Kelly has been in office. Mr. Trump has recently asked advisers what they think of Mick Mulvaney, who currently holds twin posts as director of the White House budget office and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, as a possible chief of staff, according to two people briefed on the discussions.
Mulvaney’s already a busy man. He’s running both the Office of Management and Budget and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau at the same time. Putting him in Kelly’s position will require Trump to nominate someone for the CFPB who can pass a Senate confirmation hearing, and doing so quickly enough to prevent another attempted usurpation by bureaucrats within the agency. (Trump can also appoint another temporary director who’s already passed Senate confirmation for another job.)
However, Mulvaney may be one of the stronger candidates for the position. He doesn’t mind mixing it up with people, he multi-tasks, and he’s got enough clout on his own to stand up to other West Wing figures who have been salivating at the prospect of getting past Kelly’s gatekeeping. He might be the kind of pitbull that Trump needs, as long as he follows Kelly’s example on everything except Rule One and Rule Two. Mulvaney would know those rules better than most.
Needless to say, this is a festering sore that is likely to get worse before it gets better — if in fact it ever gets better. Politico’s Eliana Johnson reports that Kelly knew several weeks ago about the FBI’s refusal to provide Porter a full clearance, and that Porter wasn’t the only staffer to get a refusal:
Kelly went on the record with the Daily Mail on Tuesday night defending Porter, praising him a “man of true integrity and honor.”
That Kelly would issue a full-throated defense of Porter — or any defense at all — was not a foregone conclusion, and was a matter of heated debate inside the White House on Tuesday afternoon, according to two administration officials.
The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Kelly had been aware for several weeks that Porter would never receive a full security clearance due to a protective order that had been filed against him by an ex-wife in 2010. It’s unclear whether he was aware of what both of Porter’s ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, say they told FBI agents during the course of their interviews for his clearance about the abuse they suffered at his hands.
To recap: the FBI found three different witnesses with allegations and documentary evidence of domestic abuse, reported it as the reason for a clearance denial for a staffer in close proximity to the president himself. And yet Kelly did nothing — not even tell the president. That’s not just a Rule One/Rule Two violation; it’s a shameful performance. Let’s not get too caught up in the utilitarian/political mold to stop and acknowledge that.
If Trump is going to do something, he’d better do it soon. Jennifer Willoughby, one of Porter’s former wives, has begun going public with Porter’s behavior, appearing on NBC’s Today show this morning. Willoughby had a “temporary protective order” against Porter from 2010, and yet supposedly the White House thought the Porter issue was a smear campaign orchestrated by Cory Lewandowski. Unless the former Trump aide had mastered time travel, that’s a ridiculous modified limited hangout. This is a massive own-goal, and it’s bad enough that at least one head other than Porter’s will have to roll. Welcome to Rule Two, General Kelly.