Commentary: The Other People To Blame For The Rob Porter Mess

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Once again, the Trump White House finds itself in crisis. Its bizarre handling of Rob Porter, who is accused by two ex-wives of brutal physical abuse, has damaged an administration that under normal circumstances would be celebrating an upswing in the polls.

The person most responsible for this situation is, of course, Porter. But right after him comes Donald Trump. His chaotic management style and mercurial temperament are reflected throughout his administration. But the person taking most of the heat for the Porter fiasco and its fallout is John Kelly, whose public performance since becoming chief of staff has been underwhelming.

He deserves the criticism he’s getting. The best argument for keeping him around at this point, as Matt Lewis put it at The Daily Beast, is that any replacement might well be worse. Either way, should Kelly go and be replaced by someone like Marc Short, we can expect stories of a reset at the White House. But Trump will still be Trump, which means any period of comparative presidential normalcy will be short-lived. So long as he’s president, the executive branch will remain a weird and wild place.

But besides Trump and Kelly, there are others in line for blame for the events of this past week. One is Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and top adviser. Another is Don McGahn, the White House counsel who isn’t quite family, but whose ties to Trump go deep.

McGahn and Trump share a family connection; the counsel’s uncle, Paddy McGahn, was a New Jersey Democratic powerbroker who served as Trump’s Atlantic City fixer in the 1980s. The younger McGahn, a staunch Republican, got in with Trump’s campaign early, and has since become a central player in the ongoing Russia drama. Now, as Major Garrett reports, Kelly loyalists in the White House feel he’s taking the fall for McGahn, who was in a position to do something about Porter and, for whatever reason, apparently did not.

We don’t yet know why McGahn, who has known about the allegations against Porter since at least November, didn’t act on that information. But his hesitancy could have to do with Kushner, who like Porter has been handling all sorts of state secrets without a formal clearance. “People familiar with the security clearance process in Mr. Trump’s White House said it was widely acknowledged among senior aides that raising questions about unresolved vetting issues in a staff member’s background would implicitly reflect on Mr. Kushner’s status, as well — a situation made more awkward because Mr. Kushner is married to the president’s daughter Ivanka,” the New York Times reported on Monday.

That Kushner would somehow play a central role in the Porter mess should not come as a surprise. Whenever this administration is in trouble, which is often, it somehow almost always leads back to him. He was in the meeting where Donald Trump Jr. was set to receive dirt on Hillary Clinton from Russian sources. He mysteriously met with the head of Russia’s VEB bank, a Kremlin-run operation and the target of U.S. sanctions, in December 2016. And he tried to set up a secret back channel to Moscow through then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak after the election. We’ll see what Robert Mueller makes of all of that.

Then there’s the case of his security clearance application, which was curiously lacking in information Kushner was required to disclose. There’s also his troubled family real estate company and its flagship property, 666 Fifth Avenue, which is bleeding money.

That project was in the news too this week, with the Kushners’ main partner decided it was bailing on the building. The Kushners have looked for foreign funding to save the project, which at the very least would be a tremendous optics problem. Meanwhile, according to Politico, Kushner has taken on three separate lines of credit since taking his administration job, although it’s unclear whether that’s related to Kushner Co.’s financial problems.

This is a tremendous amount of baggage for any administration official, particularly one with no prior government experience, and who owes his job to the president’s willingness to skirt anti-nepotism laws. Now it’s possible that Rob Porter retained his security clearance, at least in part, because nobody wanted to question the leniency afforded to Kushner.

But let’s assume for a moment that that’s not true, and we still have lingering questions about McGahn, who months ago spoke with one of Porter’s accusers. He knew what was up, and since he’s regarded as an excellent lawyer, he must have understood that someone would eventually find out about the allegations against Porter, and how damaging those revelations would be. Yet Porter stayed, and may even have even been up for a promotion, until the Daily Mail released its bombshell report last week.

All of this remains perplexing, regardless of whether Kushner’s clearance issues served as a Baedeker for how to handle Porter’s. None of this would have happened in a normal White House. But as we’ve just been reminded once again, nothing about this White House is normal.