The press has turned on John Kelly with a vengeance.
There is little question that the president’s chief of staff mishandled the Rob Porter mess. But what’s happening now in the media goes deeper than that.
Kelly was buoyed by a wave of positive press when he took the job, with stories proclaiming that the four-star general was going to knock heads together at the White House.
As I recount in my book “Media Madness,” the New York Times said in writing about a “dysfunctional” White House: “New Chief of Staff Seen as a Beacon of Discipline.” The Washington Post, describing a “floundering” administration at its “nadir,” said “John Kelly Will Bring Plain-Spoken Discipline to an Often Chaotic West Wing.”
Trump gave his new top aide more power than his predecessor, Reince Priebus, and things did seem to stabilize as more officials were exiled and outside advisers found their access curtailed.
But the case of Porter, a Kelly ally pushed out of his job after horrendous allegations of physical abuse by two ex-wives, has opened the floodgates.
It doesn’t look like Kelly’s job is in serious jeopardy, despite press reports that he has told others he is willing to resign. But as one well-connected source told me, it’s not an accident when names of possible replacements such as Mick Mulvaney are floated to the press.
Kellyanne Conway said to Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday that the president told her: “Please tell Jake that I have full faith in Chief of Staff John Kelly and that I’m not actively searching for replacements.” (Some pundits have challenged Conway over that, but who is a better source on whether Trump is planning to make a move?)
What’s striking about the latest coverage is that it’s not just a negative assessment of Kelly’s political skills, but some pundits are faulting him for sharing Trump’s hard-line views on issues—as if that would be a surprise in a chief of staff.
A number of stories invoked Kelly’s recent lament that some potential DACA beneficiaries, who would be covered by the latest Trump proposal, were “too afraid” “too lazy to get off their asses” and apply.
The even-handed Dan Balz says in his Washington Post column that in the Porter case, “Kelly appears to have put his emphasis on competence and a smoothly running White House ahead of good judgment about how to deal with something as serious as domestic abuse. It was not the first time Kelly has said or done things that lacked either good judgment or political sensitivity.
“Kelly served admirably in the military, and those accomplishments will always be part of his biography. But the differences between the military and the civilian role of running the White House have caused him problems. As chief of staff, he has shown various blind spots that have led him into other controversies, from falsely attacking a female member of Congress to suggesting the Civil War was caused by a failure to compromise.”
Another Post piece describes what happened when Kelly—having issued one statement praising Porter’s integrity and another saying he was “shocked” by the allegations—told his staff he took immediate action after learning the full extent of the ex-wives’ accounts. An unnamed official told the paper “that people after the meeting expressed disbelief with one another and felt his latest account was not true.” The Post noted that Kelly “first learned of the domestic violence allegations against Porter months ago.”
The New York Times picks up a similar theme, adding a hefty dose of chaos:
“Two West Wing advisers and a third person painted a picture of a White House staff rived and confused, with fingers pointed in all directions and the president privately expressing dissatisfaction with Mr. Kelly …
“And many, including the president himself, have turned their ire on Mr. Kelly for vouching for Mr. Porter’s character and falsely asserting that he had moved aggressively to oust him once his misdeeds were discovered.”
Whatever the extent of the White House backbiting, the press generally uses stories like the Porter saga to point fingers at Trump and revive the campaign allegations of harassment against him.
But the president’s view became fair game when he told reporters that Porter had done a great job and then tweeted in favor of “due process”: “Peoples [sic] lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false. … There is no recovery for someone falsely accused–life and career are gone.”
Axios reported yesterday that behind closed doors, “the president has told multiple people that he believes the accusations about Porter, and finds him ‘sick.’
“Four sources who have spoken directly with Trump tell me his private comments about ex-aide Porter — whose two ex-wives accused of violent attacks — have been brutal.
“But his public comments don’t reflect that, at all.”
As for Kelly, who spends little time wooing the press, I don’t think he cares much about his own coverage. And in our build-’em-up/tear-’em-down political culture, it was probably inevitable that the press would stop saluting the general.