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John Kelly, facing heat for backing alleged abuser, has shed image as calming force

Noah Bierman and Brian Bennett, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- When John Kelly oversaw the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, dozens of detainees refused to eat as a form of protest. Kelly, furious at the potential propaganda implications, instructed his charges to avoid using the term "hunger strike," insisting it be called a "long-term nonreligious fast."

That moment in 2013 showed Kelly can be "spectacularly tone deaf," said a senior military officer who served at U.S. Southern Command when Kelly was the commander. It highlighted "a kind of paternalistic, the-adults-are-in-charge, we-know-better, cavalier approach to bending and attempting to control facts."

"If you think you can control language, then you have a lot of other problems in determining how the world sees things," said the officer, requesting anonymity to avoid upsetting his current employer.

This week, in two highly visible incidents, that same weakness flared for Kelly, now chief of staff for a president who has long insisted he will never be "politically correct." The result has damaged his reputation as a calming force for an often-chaotic White House.

The most recent case engulfed the White House on Thursday as officials struggled with Kelly's defense of a top aide, Rob Porter, who has resigned after allegations became public that he had physically abused not just one, but two ex-wives.

Only after a grim photograph of one of the women's blackened eye was published did Kelly offer a measure of condemnation -- a reminder of the power of pictures to force action that words alone cannot. Until the images surfaced, White House officials had said Porter would stay in his post for an extended period before leaving.

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"I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter," Kelly said in a statement late Wednesday. "There is no place for domestic violence in our society."

That came hours after Kelly had given Porter strong backing, praising his "integrity and honor." Even in the latter statement, in which he accepted Porter's resignation, Kelly added that he stood by "my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming chief of staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation."

Inevitably, the efforts to defend Porter generated questions about what Kelly knew and when. Several news organizations reported that the allegations of domestic abuse had prevented Porter from gaining a permanent security clearance, despite his job as White House staff secretary, which required daily handling of classified material. The problems with his clearance should have made Kelly aware of the issue months ago.

Kelly's initial praise of Porter came Tuesday as the Daily Mail of London, which first published the abuse allegations, confronted the White House with the details.


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