White House mess leaves embattled Kelly in limbo

White House mess leaves embattled Kelly in limbo
Trump says he’s ‘totally opposed’ to domestic violence as House launches Porter investigation
nIt appears that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly could be in his final days on the job as his mishandling of the Rob Porter situation blooms into a full-out scandal. He's getting hit from all sides, much of it from those opposed to President Donald Trump, but plenty from those inside the White House, at least according to all the anonymous quotes out there. Sure, Kelly has alienated a lot of people with his comments about supposedly lazy Dreamers, his attacks on a military widow and his defense of Robert E. Lee. But at the end of the day he is responsible for a process job – hiring, firing, coordinating, managing up and managing down. So it makes sense to measure him on how he's handling those responsibilities. I suggested five process criteria to grade Kelly by when he took the job at the end of July, and gave him an interim report early on. Now, with the possibility that he's about to leave, it's time for an update.

Cleaning House: In September, I thought he deserved a B+ or A-, and a month ago I would have still said he had done well on this aside from nepotism hire Jared Kushner's continued service. That was before Rob Porter (and David Sorenson) were exposed; it was also before stories of numerous White House staffers who had problems with security clearances. These stories aren't unrelated, since it appears that Kushner's security clearance problems may have been linked to the others. It's real progress that a lot of the early White House clown show has ended, but the best Kelly can get on this one is a soft B-, and that might be generous only because firing Kushner is probably an option he didn't have.

The day after the Times story, the Daily Mail dropped an exclusive: Hicks was dating White House staff secretary Rob Porter. “White House romance!” the headline screamed. “Trump’s comms director Hope Hicks is seen canoodling with president’s high level staff secretary Rob Porter.” The pair had gone to dinner with Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner’s spokesperson Josh Raffel, careful to avoid any sort of physical contact. But paparazzi — hired by the Daily Mail, which, at that point, may have already begun reporting the story of Porter’s ex-wives’ domestic abuse allegations against him — followed them and took pictures of them “cuddling and kissing” in a cab on the way back to Hicks’s apartment. The article also claimed that the beginning of the romance dated to the previous fall, when Porter’s then-girlfriend discovered suggestive text messages from Hicks on Porter’s phone.

Trump says he’s ‘totally opposed’ to domestic violence as House launches Porter investigation

Rebuilding: Kelly has failed to bring in talented people to help him run things. At best, he's filled the lower ranks of the White House with solid newcomers, but there's not enough reporting at that level to have any real sense of what's happened. Once again, the failures are connected — it appears likely that one reason the chief of staff valued Porter is that Kelly didn't have a deeper bench. And once again, the job was challenging: The reputation of the president, along with a special counsel investigation, made it difficult to attract good staffers (and as my View colleague Ramesh Ponnuru points out, it's usually the case that when the first group leaves, the next team is often worse). Still, it was Kelly's job to overcome the problem. Let's call it a C-.

Trump says he's 'totally opposed' to domestic violence as House launches Porter investigation
Trump says he’s ‘totally opposed’ to domestic violence as House launches Porter investigation

Empty Threats: I see no evidence that the president's reputation as a paper tiger has improved at all since the summer. Just this week, as Ponnuru says, Trump floated a new protectionist plan which doesn't appear to be backed by any kind of administration thinking. Kelly has said his job is to manage the staff, and not the president, but that just means he didn't really even try to do better than a D.

Since then, questions have swirled around who knew what and when — and why Kelly allowed Porter to continue to work when he was denied a security clearance after the allegations of abuse surfaced. Porter resigned, and Kelly, whose job security was already in question, now also seems primed for an exit. The story has eclipsed all other messaging attempts by the White House, and Sanders has struggled to combat allegations that Trump condones violence against women, especially in the wake of a tweet by the president, issued Saturday morning, arguing that “Peoples [sic] lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.” (Sanders later claimed that Trump was referring to allegations, going back decades, against Nevada casino magnate Steve Wynn.)

Policymaking: Trump's state of the union speech was full of stories about ordinary people and missing the policy points that those people would presumably have been supporting. Sometimes those plans are released in accompanying talking points, but not really this time. Trump's team never did come up with much on either health care or taxes. But credit where it's due: They finally did manage to produce a real infrastructure plan this week after promising one for months. That's an improvement from failure, so give Kelly a D. 

Which isn’t to suggest that Hicks was wholly unknown: Over the last two years, she has become a known figure to those who study the inner machinations of power. Nuzzi’s “insider” portrait — essentially a write-around — created an aura of mystique. New York Times politics reporter Maggie Haberman respected her. Politico profiled her, again without actually speaking to her. An image of true and total loyalty, so different from the cloak-and-dagger palace intrigue that emerged daily from the White House, began to emerge: “She turns down most media requests that come her way,” the profile explained, “because she prefers to serve the president without a spotlight shining on her.”

Basic Management: Along with showing folks such as Steve Bannon the door, this one is Kelly's biggest accomplishment. Both paper flows and Oval Office traffic have by all accounts become far more professional than they were in early 2017. Don't underestimate the importance here; there's no shortage of quotes from previous White House staffers emphasizing just how important these seemingly mundane process elements are to good decision-making and eventual policy success. Points off because Trump has evaded Kelly's system by just not showing up to work as often. If controlling paper flow and the door to the Oval Office are part of managing the information the president is seeing, then it's an important failure if the president is paying more attention to the dubious sources he consults during "executive time" and that the chief of staff is unable, or even worse uninterested, in managing. All in all, let's give Kelly a B for this one.

It’s the sort of coverage that highlights just how ill-equipped the gossip press is to deal with domestic abuse. The abuse itself is too dark, so they focus on fashion and romance: People promised readers a look “Inside Hope Hicks’ Troubled Romances”; Business Insider suggested that “The Trump White House has been plagued by rumors of illicit romances — and now Hope Hicks is at the center,” highlighting Hicks’s previous relationship with ex–campaign chair Corey Lewandowski. Just days later, another piece argued that “Trump’s ‘real daughter’ Hope Hicks has started copying Melania instead of Ivanka — and now she’s in the center of the latest White House scandal.”

Ex-White House Insider: Rob Porter Was a ‘Clear Vulnerability’

Should Kelly also get deductions because he seems to be unpopular within the West Wing and has collected a fair number of enemies inside and outside of the White House? I'm inclined to think Jonah Goldberg is correct that this is more about the natural effects of the parts of the job he's doing well than an indication of something going wrong, but it's very hard to tell from the information we can get for now. 

Trump finally spoke out about domestic abuse and his answer was not great

The most charitable way of looking at Kelly's tenure is that he professionalized the most chaotic parts of the operation while doing little else to make it into a "fine-tuned machine." A harsher assessment would be that Kelly took on the easiest battles only and didn't even win those outright. The events of the last week can't help but suggest that the harsher interpretation is more likely the correct one. 

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at [email protected]

On the rare occasion that Trump has spoken about the claims, he has chosen to focus his sympathy on Porter himself: on February 9, Trump batted away questions about the allegations, telling reporters, “[Porter]…as you probably know, says he’s innocent and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent so you have to talk to him about that.” One day later, Trump tweeted that “lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation,” and that there was “no recovery for someone falsely accused.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mike Nizza at [email protected]

Duke, an admitted Holocaust denier, has praised Trump repeatedly, both on the campaign trail and since Trump took office. Despite that support, Trump initially declined to renounce for months, saying in an interview on CNN in February 2016 that he “[didn’t] know anything about him” and had “[n]ever met him.” Trump continued to ignore the issue until May that year, when he finally disavowed Duke in a vague statement, saying that “Antisemitism has no place our society, which needs to be united, not divided.”

Domestic violence is a crime, whether one works in the White House or the local 7-Eleven. As I write this, the full story of Rob Porter’s exit from the West Wing as White House staff secretary has yet to be clarified. Having worked briefly under Gen. John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, after he came on board as our new White House chief of staff, I found him to be the consummate professional, a man who lived up to his Marine Corps reputation and who was as decisive as he is efficient.

President Donald Trump speaks with congressional members at the Cabinet Room of the White House, February 14, 2018 in Washington, D.C. (CREDIT: Alex Wong/Getty Images) President Trump broke his silence on issues of domestic violence during a meeting with local elected officials, entrepreneurs, and investors at the White House on Wednesday. The remarks were in response to an ongoing controversy over recently departed Staff Secretary Rob Porter, who has been accused by two ex-wives of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse.

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I therefore find it very difficult to believe any of the allegations currently being made against him. The question of how a man with Porter’s record worked for as long as he did inside the White House remains an important one, and we will know more about who knew what, when, in the near future. But the “Porter case” illuminates a much more consequential issue, one that can potentially cripple our national security: Who truly controls the process of vetting appointees and officials for White House clearances?

Following backlash from those who thought the president’s response did not go far enough, the White House issued a separate follow-up statement on his behalf, saying, “The president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry, and hatred. Of course that includes white supremacists, KKK, Neo-Nazi, and all extremist groups.”

ADVERTISEMENT The system as it applies to the top of federal government, to the White House, is fundamentally broken and exploitable by those with a partisan agenda. Working for the most powerful man in the world as a politically commissioned officer is not only a unique honor, it entails unusual processes and personnel-handling protocols.

All such appointees must file the standard SF-86 clearance form via the eQIP system providing details of the individual’s family members, past employment, friends, references and, importantly, the foreign nationals with whom they maintain ongoing relations. Depending on one’s age and how many foreign nationals the individual knows, the completed form can run from less than 40 pages to more than 100 pages and, once completed, the form itself constitutes a classified document.

(CNN)President Donald Trump broke days of silence on the matter of spousal abuse, saying on Wednesday he was opposed to all manner of domestic violence.

The eQIP submission to the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is the basis for the “single scope” background investigation executed by government officials who must corroborate the information, interview the references, friends and neighbors listed, and the appointee themselves. In the meantime, in order to facilitate the subject’s capacity to start working for the administration, the White House makes an expedite request to the OPM for an interim clearance that, in most cases, is granted rapidly, based as it is on an expedited search as to whether the political appointee has any criminal record or derogatory history in government databases.

This is where things can get interesting. The investigation process to hopefully turn an interim clearance into a permanent one can be lengthy and has multiple masters. The OPM is the primary overseer of the process via its recently formed National Background Investigation Bureau, which works with other agencies to acquire requisite data, including the FBI, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and the CIA.

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For a Top Secret clearance, the FBI SF-86 investigators will make the determination as to whether or not the individual’s background — and any potential vulnerability — poses a threat to the nation’s security. If the appointee requires an even higher clearance (for example, managing sensitive materials within the National Security Council, or working directly with the president or vice president), they need not only Top Secret access but also a Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) level of access.

Government security clearances, not Rob Porter, are the real issue
Government security clearances, not Rob Porter, are the real issue

This SCI portion of the clearance for a White House employee falls under the ODNI — in practice, the CIA. Eventually, after what can be a year or more, the investigators at the FBI and the bureaucrats at Langley finish their investigation and forward the result to the Office of Personnel Security at the White House. This small office, with a fraction of the capabilities of the exterior agencies, makes the final recommendation to the White House chief of staff as to whether the individual should receive permanent, full clearance.

Government security clearances, not Rob Porter, are the real issue
Government security clearances, not Rob Porter, are the real issue

Interestingly, even if the FBI and CIA say there is some reason to deny a clearance (for example, prior drug use), the president has the authority to issue an individual waiver, since he is the head of the executive branch that runs the whole system for classified materials and because the White House is its own “adjudication authority.” This is how Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser, spent all eight years in the West Wing after the FBI denied him even an interim security clearance.

Government security clearances, not Rob Porter, are the real issue
Government security clearances, not Rob Porter, are the real issue

Nevertheless, the fact that all the substantive work for determining one’s eligibility to work in the West Wing is executed by intelligence agencies outside the White House is a problem. Over last eight years of the previous administration, it is clear that the intelligence community became deeply politicized. The “FISAgate” scandal has already led to eight senior FBI and DOJ officials being fired, reassigned or “retiring early” as a result of their association with partisan actions related to the Clinton and Russia investigations, as well as political bias revealed in numerous FBI text messages.

Add to that the recent contradictory statements made by President Obama’s CIA director, John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanThe Hill’s 12:30 Report Ex-CIA chief: Nunes ‘abused’ his office by releasing memo Ex-CIA chief: Steele dossier played no role in intelligence assessment on Russia’s election interference MORE, with regard to how the Russia investigation was initiated, and we must ask a simple question: Can agencies whose highest levels were permeated with demonstrable political bias be relied upon to act in good faith when handling the clearances of a new administration? My personal experience says no.

In my time in the White House, I witnessed multiple instances when those who were meant to be working for the president were subtly yet effectively obstructionists. Soon after arriving, as we were building the Office of Chief Strategist to the President, I decided to detail three FBI employees over to the White House to work on counterterrorism issues. These were individuals who had studied under me at graduate school and who were eminently capable.

Their being detailed from one branch of federal government to work in the White House should have been a simple human resources exercise. It was not. FBI management slow-rolled the detailing process for six months and sidelined the three individuals into dead-end “busy work” as punishment for being requested by name by the Trump administration. As one senior agent later shared with me, “Understand this: The seventh floor of the FBI looks at the Trump White House as the enemy.”

The White House is doing something its never done before in response to the Rob Porter scandal
The White House is doing something its never done before in response to the Rob Porter scandal

During the same period I witnessed superb candidates for senior positions on the National Security Council be similarly delayed and obstructed by the CIA, which has the power to deny the SCI portion of an appointee’s clearance. In another case, a Department of Defense detailee to the White House had his clearance pulled because his Pentagon boss resented his being elevated to the White House.

The White House is doing something its never done before in response to the Rob Porter scandal
The White House is doing something its never done before in response to the Rob Porter scandal

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It is true that Donald Trump was the rank outsider when he ran for president and that no one in the establishment expected him to win. Remember, the New York Times gave Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump touts report Warner attempted to talk to dossier author Poll: Nearly half of Iowans wouldn’t vote for Trump in 2020 Rubio on Warner contact with Russian lobbyist: It’s ‘had zero impact on our work’ MORE a greater than 90 percent chance of victory. But at 12 p.m. on Jan. 20, 2017, Trump became the 45th president of the United States, the person for whom the intelligence community exists, to inform him and his decision-making for the nation.

As such, the vetting and clearance system is there to serve the chief executive of the nation. Instead, far too often, it has been perverted so as to undermine his ability, and his team’s ability, to serve the nation. The intelligence community exists to serve all presidents, Republican or Democrat, establishment maven or insurgent outsider.

Pence: White House could have better handled Porter situation

Rob Porter is gone. It is now time for President TrumpDonald John TrumpTillerson: Russia already looking to interfere in 2018 midterms Dems pick up deep-red legislative seat in Missouri Speier on Trump’s desire for military parade: ‘We have a Napoleon in the making’ MORE to reassert control over the process of how clearances are obtained for those who work for him. Political bias can have no place in adjudicating who is granted a security clearance in the United States.

Sebastian GorkaSebastian Lukacs GorkaCNBC analyst: Trump immigration proposals feel like ‘ethnic cleansing’ Former Ohio football star faces conservative rival in GOP primary fight Gorka, Crowley: Trump speech ‘pitch perfect,’ ‘all the right notes’ MORE, Ph.D., is a national security strategist with Fox News and former deputy assistant and strategist to President Trump. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War.” You can follow him on Twitter @SebGorka.

White House official resigns after not getting security clearance

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