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The White House is on the defensive after two ex-wives of a top aide said he physically assaulted them. Staff secretary Rob Porter also did not have a permanent security clearance. Why did chief of staff John Kelly initially defend Porter, and how much was known about the allegations, and for how long? Judy Woodruff talks with Yamiche Alcindor and Chris Whipple, author of “The Gatekeepers.”
We return now to the resignation of a top White House aide following accusations of abuse.
White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter stepped down after allegations of domestic violence by his two ex-wives and photographs surfaced of his first wife with a black eye.
Chief of Staff John Kelly initially defended Porter and urged him to stay on the job. Porter served in the White House over a year without a permanent security clearance, raising questions about how much General Kelly and White House staff knew about the allegations.
Yamiche Alcindor is the NewsHour's White House correspondent, and Chris Whipple is author of "The Gatekeepers- How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency."
Welcome to both of you.
And, Yamiche, I'm going to start with you. I have two main questions, but the first one is, why did Chief of Staff John Kelly continue to defend Rob Porter, even after those photos were made available?
That is probably the most important question when looking at whether or not John Kelly will keep the credibility that he came into office with.
I spoke to Hope Hicks today. She's someone who is supposed to be romantically engaged with Rob Porter.
The White House communications director.
She's The White House communications director.
And she was supposed to be Rob Porter's girlfriend. She told me that she could not answer any questions about how that statement was crafted that initially had John Kelly calling him a man of integrity. But the reporting that I have been doing essentially shows that John Kelly was — that Hope Hicks was very much involved in crafting that statement and that they were defending someone because they thought that he had a good reputation, and that his girlfriend was helping do that.
The White House today said that there was that the chief of staff wasn't fully aware of all of the things that Rob Porter was accused of, even after the picture. So the question was posed to them, why after the picture would John Kelly still say he has a couple more days, he's going the transition slowly, and then today he was packing his bags?
But the other big question I think on people's minds, Yamiche, is, Rob Porter worked in the White House over a year in this sensitive position, access to virtually everything that goes across the president's desk, but he didn't have a permanent security clearance.
He had an interim clearance. The FBI, the White House said today, was still working on it. How could that be?
Of course, we're a year into this presidency, and there are essentially multiple people who are working in the White House with that same status.
The White House confirmed today that Rob Porter definitely was handling classified information and that he was doing so much like Jared Kushner, who, of course, is the son-in-law of the president. He also doesn't have a security clearance as of January 2018.
That means that there are multiple people who could have problematic backgrounds that are operating in the White House. The White House has said that there are background checks continuing and that Rob Porter was one of those people who was still getting a background check.
But it's interesting that the FBI had already interviewed the ex-wives, and he was handling classified information.
And he was doing his job.
Chris Whipple, you have studied chiefs of staff. You have written a book about them. What's your reaction to all of this?
Well, you know, this has been for a year the most dysfunctional White House in modern history, and it's hard to believe that it gets worse by the day.
But here we are. And John Kelly was supposed to be the guy who would make the trains run on time in the West Wing. He famously said that he wasn't put on this Earth to manage the president. He was simply in charge of managing the information flow to him.
Now, even by that very narrow definition of the job, which, by the way, is not sufficient, he's failed. You know, the idea that the staff secretary could operate for a year without a security clearance is mind-boggling.
I spoke to two former Republican White House chiefs today. Each was incredulous. It just — it isn't done.
Well, that was going to be my next question to you- How unusual is it to have someone in a crucial senior position, the staff secretary, working side by side with the chief of staff, without a permanent clearance, with the FBI withholding permanent security clearance?
Unprecedented, according to the people I have talked to, including, as I say, two former White House chiefs, another very high-ranking Republican former Trump White House adviser.
And so it's unheard of, but it's hardly the only thing, the only precedent that this White House has shattered, after all. I think that, you know, when I think of John Kelly, I'm reminded of Don Regan, who was Ronald Reagan's disastrous second White House chief of staff.
Regan was imperious, he was arrogant, and he was also politically inept and oblivious. It's no coincidence that the Iran-Contra scandal happened on his watch, as I describe in my book "The Gatekeepers."
And I think Kelly shares some of those characteristics. He's arrogant. He's politically inept. He loves to call everyone in Congress idiots.
This is a guy who has been out of his depth politically since he stepped up to the podium in the White House Briefing Room and attacked Representative Wilson with a phony story.
I remember Don Regan well, having covered the Reagan White House.
Just quickly to you, Yamiche. Finally, what is Chief of Staff John Kelly's position now? Is he going to be able to hang on to his job?
In the Trump White House, the person has their job for the time being. Right now, the White House is saying that if the president loses confidence in someone, that they will know it, which means that he could be either here for another four years or three years, or he could be fired tomorrow.
The Trump White House has had a rotating cast of characters, and there is no way to tell. I should tell you that I talked to a source who is very close to people inside the White House, and staffers are really surprised and are really dismayed that John Kelly came out with that statement supporting Rob Porter, because they feel as though it makes the whole White House look bad.
And there is reporting that Trump is still mad about Michael Wolff's book, and that he's not happy with the way that he's being portrayed in that. Of course, all of this makes him look bad, which is really important to this president. He wants to really look good for the American people. And in this, he really looks bad and the administration looks bad.
Very tough episode.
Yamiche Alcindor, Chris Whipple, we thank you both.
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