WASHINGTON -- Senior White House aides insisted Sunday that President Donald Trump retains confidence in Chief of Staff John Kelly in the midst of staff turmoil and said the president is not looking to replace the retired four-star general hired six months ago with a mandate to corral chaos.
The aides fanned out on the morning talk shows to explain how the White House handled the departure of staff secretary Rob Porter, a rising West Wing star who exited after two ex-wives came forward with allegations of spousal abuse. And they tried to clarify the reaction from Trump, who has yet to offer a sympathetic word to the women who said they had been abused.
"I spoke with the president last night about this very issue, and he wanted me to re-emphasize to everyone, including this morning, that he has full confidence in his current chief of staff, Gen. John Kelly, and that he is not actively looking for replacements," White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said in an interview on ABC's This Week.
She added that Trump also retains confidence in communications director Hope Hicks, a long-serving aide under scrutiny for her role in the White House response to spousal abuse allegations against Porter, with whom she had a relationship.
Porter resigned or was fired Wednesday, a day after Kelly had defended him as "a man of honor" in a statement in which Hicks apparently had a hand.
Kelly did not offer his resignation over criticism of his handling of the Porter case, White House legislative director Marc Short said in an interview on NBC's Meet the Press. Numerous news reports had said Kelly offered to quit or was ready to do so Friday, but the chief of staff had denied in a separate NBC interview Friday that he had ever offered his resignation.
"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."
Budget director Mick Mulvaney, among those mentioned as a possible Kelly successor if Trump were to make a change, also downplayed the speculation about Kelly's standing, suggesting those stories "are mostly being fed by people who are unhappy that they have lost access to the president." He said talk of Kelly's departure is "much ado about nothing."
But Trump reportedly has grown frustrated with Kelly, once commended for bringing discipline to the West Wing but who recently has been at the center of his own controversies.
Trump has begun floating possible names for a future chief of staff in conversations with outside advisers, according to three people with knowledge of the conversations but not authorized to discuss them.
In addition to Mulvaney, the others are House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.; Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C.; and CIA Director Mike Pompeo.
Mulvaney said no one has talked to him about replacing Kelly and "I don't want that job."
There was no sign that a move was imminent, according to the people with knowledge of the conversations. Trump is known to frequently poll his advisers about the performance of senior staff members and is often reluctant to actually fire aides.
On CNN's State of the Union, Conway defended Trump's response Friday to the accusations against Porter, in which the president praised Porter's work and said "we wish him well" in his career. Trump had also stressed to reporters that Porter denies the allegations from his two former wives that he was physically and emotionally abusive. Trump did not mention the women or address the substance of their claims in those remarks or in a tweet Saturday that decried how "lives are bring shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation."
Trump, Conway said, "is sympathetic to women and men that are victims of domestic violence."
On ABC, Conway elaborated that Trump believes "you have to consider all sides. He has said this in the past about incidents that relate to him as well.
"At the same time, you have to look at the results," Conway said. "The result is that Rob Porter is no longer the staff secretary."
Conway was referring to allegations by more than a dozen women that Trump had sexually abused or harassed them. Trump denies the allegations and has said they were fabricated to sunder his political career. On Saturday, Trump tweeted that "lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation. Some are true and some are false." And the day before, he pointed to Porter's assertions of innocence and wished him a great future.
"I think the president's shaped by a lot of false accusations against him in the past," said Short, who added that Trump was "very disappointed" by the charges against Porter. "And I think that he believes that the resignation was appropriate."
"I have no reason not to believe the women" who accuse Porter of abuse, Conway said. "And a week ago, I had no reason to believe that that had ever happened."
"We do give people the benefit of the doubt," she continued. "I don't walk around the White House wondering, 'Who is this person really?' And we work in very close quarters together, and we're trying, as just small pieces of this, to do good for the country."
Mulvaney said on Fox News Sunday that it was normal for Trump and Kelly to have given Porter the benefit of doubt when he denied the allegations. As soon as Porter was proved to be wrong, Mulvaney said, "he was gone almost immediately."
A number of West Wing aides were shaken by Kelly's handling of the Porter accusations, according to one official. At a senior staff meeting on Friday, Kelly tried to push his own timeline concerning Porter. Some aides in that meeting privately questioned Kelly's account, thinking his version of events was self-serving, according to one official with knowledge of the meeting but not authorized to discuss it publicly.
Kelly has said he found out only Tuesday night that the accusations against Porter were true, but that same evening the White House released a statement of support for Porter from Kelly. The chief of staff, who has said he only learned of irregularities with Porter's background check in November, insisted that the decision for the staff secretary was made before photos of one of his ex-wives with a black eye were published.
Mulvaney, however, said Porter was "not entirely forthcoming" when asked about the allegations and, once the photos came out, "we dismissed that person immediately."
Conway was asked on CNN whether Kelly and White House counsel Donald McGahn had known about the abuse allegations for several months.
"Well, there is no way for me to know what those two men knew, because I'm not in that line, and nor should I be," she replied.
She said Kelly had denied to her that he had long known about the accusations.
Information for this article was contributed by Anne Gearan of The Washington Post; by Jonathan Lemire of The Associated Press; and by Ben Brody, Mark Niquette and Katherine Chiglinsky of Bloomberg News.
A Section on 02/12/2018
Print Headline: No plan afoot to oust Kelly, top aides say; Trump has ‘full confidence’ in staff chief, adviser asserts