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Aide's departure casts a harsh light on Trump's chief of staff

Jennifer Jacobs, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- The sudden resignation of one of President Donald Trump's top aides amid allegations of domestic abuse raised fresh questions about chief of staff John Kelly's ability to bring a tumultuous White House under control.

The episode risked tarnishing Kelly's reputation for running a tight ship and possibly weakened his political clout in Washington at a time when Trump is looking to build support on both sides of the aisle over contentious issues like immigration.

Kelly's ability to lead is also being questioned within the West Wing: several White House aides said that he had failed Trump if he had known about the allegations against staff secretary Rob Porter and not informed the president.

Kelly came further criticism for his response. When Porter resigned on Wednesday, Kelly offered only a glowing statement of the senior aide. Later that evening, he released a second statement, saying that he "was shocked by the new allegations" and that "there is no place for domestic violence in our society."

People familiar with the matter said Kelly was aware there were issues in Porter's past impeding his permanent security clearance more than a year into his tenure. White House officials declined to go into more detail about how much Kelly knew about them and when he had first been informed.

Porter has denied the allegations.

When asked in a briefing on Thursday why the White House and Kelly had stood behind Porter amid the allegations, Deputy White House Press Secretary Raj Shah acknowledged that communications had reflected their positive views of Porter as a colleague.

"I think it's fair to say that we all could have done better over the last few hours -- or last few days -- in dealing with this situation," Shah said. "The emerging reports were not reflective of the individual who we had come to know."

Shah said that Kelly only became "fully aware" of the allegations this week. He declined to give details about how much the chief of staff had known before that. Shah added that Kelly retained the president's confidence.

On Thursday night, a White House official released a letter that Kelly had written to White House employees seeking to allay their concerns over the accusations against Porter.

"I want you to know that we all take matters of domestic violence very seriously," Kelly said in the letter. "We understand the shock, pain and confusion that these allegations have caused in our workplace."

Porter's title understates his significance in the White House. He served as a clearinghouse for paperwork coming in or out of the Oval Office, and he was an important influence on policy in his own right. Few aides enjoyed greater access to the Oval Office, or spent more time in the president's company. He also played a vital role in helping Kelly try to bring order to the White House.

 

A president's staff secretary typically would be cleared for a level of security called Top Secret Sensitive Compartmented Information, allowing him or her to handle extremely sensitive information, according to a former White House official with knowledge of the process. The secretary would have access to two computer systems, one classified and the other unclassified, the former official said.

Staff secretaries are also typically privy to information in the classified President's Daily Briefing, a summary of intelligence on threats to the U.S., the former official said.

"The fact that Porter might have held a senior White House position without a security clearance is troubling and merits a full investigation," said Chris Lu, former cabinet secretary under President Barack Obama and senior fellow at the University of Virginia Miller Center. "I've lost count as to how many Trump appointees have been sidelined because of their past views or conduct. But this is further evidence of a non-existent vetting process."

While Kelly has earned plaudits from many in the West Wing for imposing structure onto the presidential decision-making process, the president and his closest advisers have bristled at his attempts to limit the access of the sprawling diaspora of friends, business leaders, media figures and former advisers with whom Trump regularly consorted.

Trump also appeared angered by Kelly's handing of immigration negotiations on Capitol Hill. According to reports, he told congressional Democrats that the president was "uninformed" during the campaign when he promised a physical barrier spanning the entirety of the Southern border paid for by Mexico.

In a subsequent television interview, Kelly, the former Department of Homeland Security secretary, said the president had "evolved in the way he looks at things" -- drawing a rebuke from Trump on Twitter, who said his plan had "never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it."

Kelly went on to infuriate immigration advocates and Democratic lawmakers on Feb. 6 when he said some young immigrants eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program had failed to apply for the legal protections because they were too afraid -- or "too lazy to get off their asses."

(c)2018 Bloomberg News

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