At the outset of the Rob Porter scandal, I was baffled by the way this scandal seemed to be hamstringing and damaging the White House in ways few others have. This is not to say the Porter story isn’t bad enough. It’s plenty bad. It’s egregiously bad. But this President has had a lot of scandals that are egregiously bad. Set aside for the moment that there is every reason to believe that the President himself is a chronic sexual predator – a fact that now seems more or less accepted as part of the political firmament. This is a President who literally stood up for Nazis against anti-Nazi protestors. There’s a lot of competition for bad. Individual wrongdoing should largely be centered on the person in question. It doesn’t naturally attach to their coworkers or employers. But from the start, in this case, everyone around Rob Porter seemed compromised by his offenses – and not in random ways. His story, this ignored and covered up offense, has managed to expose and highlight all the failings of the President and his coterie – not simply their indifference to racism or gender violence but interwoven factors like indifference to the rule of law and personal loyalty to leader as the highest, indeed singular, value.
We can start with the simple fact that this President surrounds himself with men who abuse women. Abuse and predation may know no party. But abusers seek out and run together. Trump’s politics are rooted in grievance, both gendered and racial. Trump is consistent if nothing else. He is an embodiment of his politics. It’s no surprise that this isn’t theoretical or merely expressed in political terms but is interpersonal and personally violent as well. Abusers know the President is one of them. They seek him out and he protects them in turn. Few men in the President’s coterie have multiple wives who’ve been willing to take the step of describing their former husband’s violence on the record. But it’s remarkable the number of Trump’s top advisors who have a history of abuse, whether it’s accusations of harassment or sexual assault or chronic physical violence against former spouses or girlfriends.
It unsurprising and yet still remarkable that the President’s first public comments on the Porter story were expressions of condolence to Porter and what he was suffering, paired with suggestions that Porter was probably wrongly accused. What strikes me most about these Trump moments is how simple a more cynical response would be. A pro-forma nod to the gravity of domestic violence and a generic expression of sympathy to the alleged victims would be so simple. Yet President is unwilling and perhaps unable to do so. He says what he feels and what he feels is not pretty.
Then there’s the President’s Chief of Staff, once held up as a professional and an adult accepting the burden of service to a transgressive President out of a sense of duty. That false impression has been whittled away until we arrive at the present moment where we can see unmistakably that John Kelly is an expositor of what we might call Total Quality Trumpism, a more disciplined and professionalized version of the President’s desire to rebuild traditional gender, racial hierarchies and seek revenge against a world he believes is spinning out of control. Such a traditionalist manifesto was the centerpiece of his broadside last fall against Florida Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D).
The key lines are worth remembering.
“When I was a kid growing up a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred and looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we’ve seen from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, was sacred. That’s gone. Religion. That seems to be gone as well. Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer.”
Unsurprisingly, it has also become clear that Kelly’s attitudes toward immigrants are deeply aligned with President Trump’s. This was clear by implication in his time running the Department of Homeland Security and more vivid in his own ravenous words. We now have ample evidence of what should have been predictable from the start: Almost everyone who signed up to serve President Trump was in a critical way like him, either ideologically or in personal character. The notion that more than a handful were dedicated, non-extremist professionals serving in spite of Trump’s failings rather than because of them has simply failed the test of evidence.
Kelly knew for months about Porter’s abuse. He didn’t think it merited his dismissal. It didn’t change his opinion of him as a man of the highest honor and integrity. He even kept him on in the face of his failure to gain a proper security clearance – a major problem even if you don’t care about the underlying issue of domestic violence. Kelly’s role in the Porter drama (along with other evidence over the last year) leaves little question that his vision of honor and integrity is one in which habitual violence against wives and girlfriends plays no significant role. Because of that he took no action when he learned about Porter’s past. Because of that he first delivered a paean to Porter’s virtue in response to the revelations and asked him not to resign. All the actions make sense with that predicate in mind. These things don’t matter, a minor personal vice – akin to smoking or perhaps a minor gambling habit – against a record of dedication and integrity.
Porter apparently lacked a security clearance in part because his background check was hung up over his previous abuse allegations. But this story has highlighted the fact that a large number of key White House staffers also lack clearances. This doesn’t mean they all did bad things. Some of it is tied to backlogs in the massive clearance process itself. What it seems to show is a more general problem. A large percentage of the people in the Trump White House either lack government experience or carry significant personal baggage. Some cases are like the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, someone who is wildly unqualified for the work he’s doing and has business ties to all kinds of questionable entities. In other cases it may simply be that lots of people have never been in government before. So they lack pre-existing clearances and have business backgrounds which take some time to examine. The point is that at least in theory – and one would hope in some cases in practice – these are people who have skills and temperament that merit making a contribution to government service. But the fact that they haven’t been in government before creates delays in getting them cleared.
But there seems to be a deeper issue as well. We’re familiar with the mix of toadies and cranks who surround Trump – the Omarosas and Gorkas and Scaramuccis. Many of them got jobs in the White House and many have already lost them. What’s become clear over time is that even the people with experience, the ‘good’ people, tend to come with less experience or more baggage than usual. There seems to be a process of mutual selection or rather de-selection in the Trump universe. The most experienced people stay away and more credible and principled people get blackballed. The most credible explanation to Rachel Brand’s inexplicable departure for Walmart after eight months is that she believed she would be professionally damaged by continued association with Donald Trump.
Let’s go back to the situation around Porter himself. Three players in the mix dealing with his departure were Kelly, Hope Hicks and White House Counsel Don McGahn. Kelly rose to the pinnacle of the Marine Corps. But he has little to no political experience, which was at least relevant in handling the situation once it was exposed. Hicks is a 29 year old who has virtually no relevant experience whatsoever for her current position. Her only professional experience is with the Trump family and before signing on to the campaign that was all doing PR work for Ivanka’s clothing line. Her ability to manage the current situation started out limited and was inevitably compromised by her dating the accused abuser. McGahn is the most experienced player in the mix. But he must have his hands full with the all-encompassing Russia investigation in which not only his client but he personally may face significant legal jeopardy. It is no excuse. But it would be no surprise if lots of things are falling by the wayside as McGahn grapples with what is reasonably seen as an existential threat to the Presidency. Not surprisingly, according to this yesterday morning report from Mike Allen, Kelly is now caught out in his own lies by Porter himself. Porter is impeaching Kelly’s lies to friends and reporters. All Cretans are liars, says the Cretan. The wife beater is our fact witness against the liar who protected him.
All of it starts to feed on itself. The President is defined by his predation. He attracts these people to him or they are the only options available and he in turn protects them. He’s staffed by the inexperienced, the incompetent and the reprobate. They are unable to hide his nature even when it would be in his interest to allow them to do so. The rush of crises and incapacity yields desperation and lying, in part because of the nature of the situation but even more because these behaviors are validated from the top. Did John Kelly start out as a liar? We don’t know. He seems to be one and a not terribly good one now. Porter’s exposure is like a brief but sustained flash of light amidst the moral darkness and squalor of the Trump White House, briefly illuminating all the dreck and rot of the rough beast of Trumpism.