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Chief Of Staff John Kelly Faces Questions On Immigration Comments, Handling Of Staff


The White House is still dealing with the fallout of domestic abuse allegations against staff secretary Rob Porter. Porter resigned yesterday, and now there are questions about the White House response and how long officials knew about the allegations. The focus is on chief of staff John Kelly, who came to Porter's defense. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: This story first broke Tuesday night in the British tabloid The Daily Mail, and the initial reaction of the White House was to defend Porter, who under chief of staff John Kelly had taken on an increasingly important role in the Trump White House. He was the man tasked with controlling the flow of information into the Oval Office. He often traveled with the president and was involved in crafting the State of the Union address. Kelly, in a statement Tuesday, praised Porter, saying he was a man of true integrity and honor, a friend, confidant and trusted professional.

Then yesterday, photos of Porter's first wife with a black eye came out, and Porter resigned, though he continues to deny all of the allegations. Still, the White House and Kelly stood by him with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insisting he hadn't been pushed out.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: The president and chief of staff have had full confidence and trust in his abilities and his performance.

KEITH: It was only late last night that the White House released a new statement from Kelly saying he was shocked by the allegations and that there is no place for domestic violence in our society, adding that he stood by his previous praise of Porter. Today, principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah said the White House could have done a better job of dealing with the situation.


RAJ SHAH: This was a Rob Porter that I and many others have dealt with, that Sarah dealt with, that other officials, including the chief of staff, had dealt with. And the emerging reports were not reflective of the individual who we had come to know.

KEITH: Much of the attention has now turned to Kelly, what he knew, when and why he continued to defend Porter. Shah says Kelly didn't know the full extent of the allegations until yesterday. Leon Panetta worked closely with Kelly at the Pentagon and was White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration.

LEON PANETTA: I worry about John because, you know, look; he is first and foremost a Marine. He is not a politician.

KEITH: Kelly is a retired four-star Marine general, and Panetta says the mistakes of the last several days are maybe something a general could get away with. But now Kelly is the White House chief of staff.

PANETTA: You've got to have political judgment, and you got to think ahead as to what can happen that could damage the president. And for whatever reason, that didn't happen here, and he's now going to pay a price for that.

KEITH: It's not clear what that price will be, if any. In Washington, there's been this one overriding piece of conventional wisdom about Kelly, who came into the White House after a chaotic period of backbiting and staff turnover.

LUIS GUTIERREZ: He's supposed to be the adult in the room. He's supposed to be that guiding light. He's supposed to give maturity, right?

KEITH: That was Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez from Illinois. He initially thought Kelly was someone he could work with on immigration issues. He said Kelly presented himself as an ally within the administration. But lately Gutierrez has been questioning who Kelly really is. Earlier this week, Kelly was in the spotlight for the crude and racially charged way he described immigrants eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program but who hadn't applied for the program's protections.


JOHN KELLY: 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.

KEITH: For Gutierrez, this was both deeply offensive and something of a last straw.

GUTIERREZ: You can read a book. You can read the public policy. You can get educated. It's really hard to get a heart.

KEITH: At today's White House briefing, spokesman Raj Shah insisted President Trump continues to have full confidence in Kelly. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.