In any other universe, Monday would be a big day in Washington.
The White House is slated to simultaneously unveil its latest budget blueprint and deliver a long-delayed plan to repair the country’s aging infrastructure, President Donald Trump’s signature policy proposal for 2018.
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But the firestorm surrounding chief of staff John Kelly has overshadowed what would otherwise be a banner day for the administration, frustrating Republicans and putting new pressure on Kelly to restore confidence in his leadership.
People close to the president have been grumbling privately for days about Kelly’s handling of allegations that White House staff secretary Rob Porter verbally and physically abused his two ex-wives. The White House said Porter decided to resign after the claims became public, but officials’ description of the timeline has shifted since the news first broke on Tuesday. Questions remain about when Kelly learned of the women’s accusations and how much he knew — and even some Republicans are calling on him to explain his actions.
“I think, in the end, we’ve got to hear from John Kelly as to what he knew,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “And we haven’t heard that directly from him yet. And I think the president needs to hear that before he can make an evaluation of competence.”
Kelly has told White House staffers that he secured Porter’s immediate resignation within 40 minutes of fully understanding the severity of the allegations against his former colleague. But multiple administration officials told POLITICO that Kelly had been aware of the broad strokes of the allegations against Porter for months. Others in the administration, including White House counsel Don McGahn, were also made aware of the allegations months prior to the explosive story in the Daily Mail, according to people familiar with the issue.
Kelly issued a pair of statements, including one Wednesday night saying he was “shocked” by the allegations. He has also spoken to staff privately about the issue and briefly talked to a few reporters who caught up with him at the White House. But while he has occasionally addressed the White House press corps in the past, he has not appeared in public to discuss the Porter debacle.
Pressed about the reports that Kelly knew about the allegations, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, deferred to him on Sunday.
“Gen. Kelly has said otherwise, and you would have to ask him the question squarely,” she said on “This Week.”
A White House spokesman did not respond to questions about whether Kelly will publicly weigh in on what he knew about Porter.
“I think that the general is being very clear about what happened, and I think he ought to continue to be,” Matt Schlapp, chairman of the lobbying group American Conservative Union, told POLITICO. Schlapp’s wife works in the White House. “Sunshine in all these cases is always a helpful thing.”
Republicans are increasingly fed up with the personality-focused West Wing drama that dominates cable news even as the GOP tries to sell the tax reform law and focus on other policy issues like infrastructure ahead of the November midterms.
“The president is more interested in promoting what he considers star casting than competent people,” said one prominent Republican with close ties to the White House and Republicans on Capitol Hill. “This chases the competent people out (or keeps them away) and empowers the people who look good on paper or in front of a camera.”
White House aides acknowledged that the Porter scandal is all-consuming, even for an administration that is used to bouncing from crisis to crisis.
But one senior administration official expressed confidence that Trump can recapture control of the narrative, noting that the Senate will begin debating immigration legislation this week — an issue that the president is likely to focus on in public comments and on Twitter.
“We have an uncanny ability to change news cycles,” the official told POLITICO. “I think he’ll be able to shift it to what he wants.”
The official added that he doesn’t think there’s internal pressure on Kelly to publicly address the timeline of what he knew about Porter.
Schlapp said the White House has navigated pushing a policy agenda despite media attention to internal drama before and can do so again. “This is not exactly a brand-new dynamic for them,” he said.
Trump expressed frustration on Sunday afternoon with the nonstop coverage of the fallout from the Porter resignation.
“So many positive things going on for the U.S.A. and the Fake News Media just doesn’t want to go there. Same negative stories over and over again!” he wrote on Twitter.
But Trump himself has done little to extinguish the firestorm. He has repeatedly expressed sympathy for Porter and has yet to publicly acknowledge the women who were allegedly abused.
The White House is planning a slew of infrastructure-related events this week in a bid to refocus on its policy agenda, including a meeting between Trump and state and local officials on Monday. An administration official also told POLITICO that Trump will talk about infrastructure during a speech on Friday in Orlando, Florida.
But if the Sunday talk shows were any indication, the Porter saga isn’t going away anytime soon.
White House legislative affairs director Marc Short didn’t get a single question about Trump’s upcoming fiscal year 2019 budget request to Congress during an appearance on “Meet the Press.” Instead, he was forced to defend Kelly and bat down reports that Kelly’s job is in danger.
“John Kelly knows that he serves at the pleasure of the president,” Short said. “And he will step aside anytime the president doesn’t want him to be there. But John Kelly has not offered his resignation. John Kelly is doing an outstanding job.”
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