Jules Witcover: Abusers in the White House
WASHINGTON — Apparently, White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, like his boss, President Donald Trump, has dodged the sexual abuse epidemic that has gripped the country.
Unlike Trump, who remains haunted but unbowed by accusations against him from multiple women, not to mention that anything-goes video in which he boasted about sexual assault, Kelly personally is free of allegations. But in praising his now-departed aide Rob Porter, whom two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend have accused of physically abusing them, Kelly risks casting himself, again as with Trump, as soft on abuse.
Months earlier, the FBI had scrutinized Porter’s misconduct as part of the national security clearance process for the super-sensitive job he had held through Trump’s first presidential year. Now Kelly, who has been praised inside the White House and out for bringing needed discipline to it if not to Trump himself, finds himself under fire for turning a blind eye to alleged domestic abuse.
Not surprisingly, the president has given Kelly a pass on the matter, although it brings recollections of Trump’s own embarrassing traffic record as an accused sexual abuser over many years. Always straight-facedly denying it, Trump now pleads for “due process” for Porter, a legal concept his former boss has often brushed off in his many tiffs with business complainants.
In Trump’s initial defense of Porter, and by inference of Kelly, he made no reference to the two women who have accused their former husband of abuse. One ex-wife even appears in a photo sporting an ugly black eye she has attributed to Porter.
Adding to the soap-opera aura to the whole business is the revelation that Trump’s pet female aide, Hope Hicks, often described as his constant companion, is or has been dating Porter in a White House romance. She also is said to have had a hand in writing Trump’s over-the-top praise of Porter. You can’t make this stuff up.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, quickly mobilized into damage control mode, took to the Sunday television talk circuit, reporting that Trump “has full confidence” in Kelly and that “he is not actively looked for replacements.”
That statement probably offered comfort not only to the retired four-star Marine general but also to many White House staffers. They see him as an effective and steady influence on the erratic and impulsive president, and even as a kind of Trump whisperer to keep him on course, if not always successful.
But as Kelly eased into the job, replacing the first chief of staff, the inept Reince Priebus, a Washington import from Wisconsin state politics, the general began to allow himself comments that took him beyond his job description. For example, in reference to Trump’s immigration reform plans, Kelly referred to some foreign applicants for U.S entry under the Obama plan to defer deportation of children of undocumented parents as “too lazy to get off their asses” to sign up for eligibility.
There also was a sense among some Trump loyalists that Kelly might be getting too big for his helmet, although Trump is forever bragging about “my generals” and his own limitless embrace of the American military.
In any event, the latest White House staff turmoil is no comfort to the president as he is increasingly thrown on the defensive by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s tampering in our elections. It appears more and more to augur obstruction-of-justice charges against him, or at least against members of his 2016 campaign, down the road.
For that reason, the approaching November midterm congressional elections can be critical. The possibility of the Democrats winning a majority in the House, where impeachment procedures must begin, heightens the chances of that happening against the Republican president.
No wonder Trump so fears whatever the Mueller investigation may bring by then. He continues to characterize it as a conspiracy against him — and to labor relentlessly to squelch it one way or another, even to the point of discrediting the FBI of his own Justice Department.
Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books.