Among the many people agitated this week over John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, was President Donald 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 Trump.
In the West Wing, various characters fall in and out of favor with such rapidity that it is never entirely clear who has the president’s ear.
For now, it is 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 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 Kelly has been in office. 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.
Of course, predicting Trump’s actions and sorting out who is up and down in his orbit is always fraught. Priebus, for instance, denied Thursday night that Trump had discussed Kelly with him even though several other Trump advisers insisted that he did.
Either way, it has been a tough week for Kelly, to say the least.
“Ya think?” said the former defense secretary Leon E. Panetta, a onetime boss to Kelly, who retired as a four-star Marine general. “I worry about John. Even he has admitted it’s probably the toughest job he’s ever had. And I really do think sometimes, particularly with this president, you’re fighting on so many fronts it’s tough not to have that job wear on you.”
But Kelly’s long service to his country as a Marine did not necessarily prepare him for the job of White House chief of staff, added Panetta, who had that post himself under President Bill Clinton. “It comes to that political judgment,” he said. “You’ve got to have your antenna up. You’ve got to be able to anticipate where the hot spots are.”
This week was not the first time that Kelly did not seem to foresee hot spots. When he took the White House job last summer, he was seen by many as a mature figure who could impose order on a chaotic building. By most accounts, he has indeed created a more organized operation. But he has also generated repeated furors with words and deeds.
He engaged in a heated back-and-forth with an African-American Democratic congresswoman, distorting statements she had made at a ceremony they both attended. He opined that the Civil War resulted from “the lack of an ability to compromise.” He said that Trump had not been “fully informed” about border issues as a candidate and had since “evolved,” drawing a public retort from the president.
Kelly generated further heat this week when he dismissed many of the more than 1 million immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children but who did not apply for the protection of an Obama-era program that Trump ordered ended next month. Some of them “were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up, others would say were too lazy to get off their asses, but they didn’t sign up,” he told reporters.
Kelly at first came to the defense of Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary, who resigned in the face of allegations of spousal abuse. “Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor, and I can’t say enough good things about him,” Kelly said. “He is a friend, a confidant and a trusted professional.”
As outrage grew over a photograph showing an ex-wife of Porter with a black eye, Kelly issued a new statement. “I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter,” he said. “There is no place for domestic violence in our society.” But he added: “I stand 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.”
Porter’s case raised questions about what Kelly knew and when. The White House was informed as far back as August that Porter’s security clearance was being held up because of domestic allegations. Kelly has known about the allegations at least since last fall, according to officials who asked not to be named.
Raj Shah, a White House spokesman, said Thursday that Kelly was not “fully aware” of the details until this week. Shah also insisted that Trump remained behind Kelly. “The president has confidence in his chief of staff,” he said.
One official insisted that there was minimal knowledge in the White House about Porter’s troubles. The official said that Kelly felt misled by Porter’s account of what had happened. A friend of Kelly’s said he had learned the details of Porter’s situation only an hour before suggesting he resign.
But White House officials said privately that the president was frustrated with both Kelly and the White House communications director, Hope Hicks, who in recent weeks has been dating Porter. Hicks was one of those rallying the White House to Porter’s defense when the allegations first surfaced in The Daily Mail.
Two people close to the situation said Kelly had strongly urged Porter to remain in his job. But a third person denied that, saying that Kelly had suggested to Porter on Tuesday night that he should resign. All three agreed that Kelly never demanded the resignation.
Kelly seemed determined to smooth concerns among staff members who were bewildered by the initial reaction to the allegations against Porter.
In a memo to the staff on Thursday night, Kelly wrote, “While we are all processing the shocking and troubling allegations made against a former White House staffer, I want you to know that we all take matters of domestic violence very seriously. Domestic violence is abhorrent and has no place in our society.”
Friends and associates noted that with Kelly’s lack of experience in Washington politics, he may not have been attuned at first to how the domestic abuse allegations against Porter would be perceived.
Porter was also a favorite of Kelly’s and viewed as one of the most competent members of an often dysfunctional White House team. Some friends expressed concern that Kelly had changed with his association with Trump and grown too insulated in the White House bubble.
Kelly has previously played down accusations against someone he believed served a greater goal. He appeared as a character witness in a 2016 court-martial of a Marine colonel accused of sexually harassing two female subordinates. Kelly praised the colonel as a “superb Marine officer.”
Kelly has spent much of his six months trying to clear out the White House of staff members he viewed as problematic and colleagues have credited him with reducing internal feuding as a result. But even those efforts have caused him trouble.
He pushed out Omarosa Manigault Newman, the former reality-show star who had been given a White House post, for what one White House official called misuse of government cars. In an interview on “Celebrity Big Brother” on CBS that aired on Thursday, Manigault Newman exacted some payback by describing a chilling White House. “I was haunted by tweets every single day, like what is he going to tweet,” she said.
She added that she tried to intervene but was blocked. Now that she is gone, she said, “I’d like to say it’s not my problem, but I can’t say that because, like, it’s bad.” Will everything be OK, she was asked. “No, it’s going to not be OK,” she said. “It’s not.”
Shah dismissed her comments. “Omarosa was fired three times on ‘The Apprentice,’ and this is the fourth time we let her go,” he said.
But most attention on Thursday focused on Kelly and his handling of the charges against Porter.
“I have lost all confidence in him as chief of staff,” Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist, said on MSNBC. “He’s becoming a distraction. He says things that are absolutely outrageous and then he does things in the case of Rob Porter that are morally despicable.”
Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., wrote on Twitter that the Porter case was “part of a culture of misogyny at the #WhiteHouse.”
Republicans were not so quick to throw Kelly overboard, even as they questioned his judgment.
“General Kelly has done an extraordinary job as chief of staff to President Trump,” Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., said on CNN. “I think he’s a good man. And sometimes good people make bad decisions. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people. It means they’re human.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.