The low point of Kelly’s tenure came in February 2018, with the revelation of accusations of physical and verbal abuse against Porter by two ex-wives. Porter, a veteran Senate staffer, had become an important part of Kelly’s mechanism for controlling the flow of paper to the president—Porter was often by the president’s side, and reportedly touched every piece of paper that made it to Trump. But he was operating on an interim security clearance: His permanent clearance was hung up thanks to the accusations of abuse.
Kelly initially defended Porter, saying he was “a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him.” After The Intercept published photos showing a black eye that Colbie Holderness said Porter gave her, he resigned. Staffers complained to The New York Times that Kelly was not telling the truth about the events that led up to Porter’s resignation. Meanwhile, other reporting showed that notwithstanding Kelly’s initial statement, he had been informed of the abuse allegations long before they became public.
As I wrote at the time, the Porter episode was often treated as an example of chaos at the White House, but in reality what it showed was the duplicity of many in the West Wing, including the chief of staff. Kelly also had a penchant for impolitic comments, including repeatedly saying immigrants who had not registered for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program were “too lazy to get off their asses.”
Dishonest or offensive statements do not, needless to say, disqualify anyone from serving in the Trump administration. But Kelly struggled to assert control of the West Wing. While the Baker strategy had worked for Leon Panetta during the Clinton administration, Trump was unwilling to be corralled. No matter how effective Kelly was as a gatekeeper to the Oval Office, Trump would head to the White House residence and call friends or watch hours of television, both of which could easily derail him. In one notable incident, Trump came out on Twitter against a bill the White House backed, only to reverse course later than morning.
Kelly was occasionally able to twist Trump’s arm. In January 2018, according to The New York Times, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer left the White House believing he had struck a deal with Trump to extend DACA, only to receive a phone call from Kelly, who thought the deal too weak, spiking it.
Kelly became frustrated with Trump, threatening to quit repeatedly, according to the Times. In Fear, the journalist Bob Woodward quoted Kelly telling other aides in a meeting, “He’s an idiot. It’s pointless to try to convince him of anything. He’s gone off the rails. We’re in crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us are here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.” Kelly denied making the remark, but the feeling appeared mutual: Occasional stories appeared in the press about Trump’s dissatisfaction with his chief of staff or his intention to operate the White House without a chief of staff.
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