The White House press corps has become used to briefing-room spin, cleanups after Trump tweets, and flat-out falsehoods about presidential fixations like crowd size.
But for reporters covering the Trump administration, something feels different about the Rob Porter scandal. White House reporters say that the incident has transformed into the most infuriating and baffling episode in an administration whose communication strategy has often been defined by chaos and warring factions.
Day after day, since the Daily Mail first reported that the now-former White House staff secretary’s two ex-wives said he was physically and emotionally abusive, the White House has repeatedly contradicted the timeline of events that led to Porter’s departure. After originally praising Porter in a statement, for instance, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told staff to say he had been tossed 40 minutes after he learned about the allegations, according to the Washington Post. That version of events was then challenged by press secretary Sarah Sanders at a White House briefing this week.
“There’s the extraordinary situation where the White House chief of staff and the White House press secretary are telling completely different stories about what happened,” said one White House reporter. “That’s wild even by Trump White House standards.”
The scandal has inherently damning components: Domestic violence (including photos) coupled with the fact that Kelly knew “several weeks ago” that Porter, who handled confidential material given to the president, would eventually be denied permanent security clearance, according to Politico. FBI Director Chris Wray complicated matters further when he testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday morning, once again contradicting White House statements. (Porter has denied the allegations and resigned.)
But the event, and particularly the clumsy handling, has redefined Kelly’s image both within the West Wing and the White House media, where he has been frequently portrayed as a steady hand. The groundswell of anti-Kelly leaks coming out of the White House in recent days has demonstrated how some frustrated underlings see this as a good chance to weaken a controlling chief of staff, White House reporters say. There has also been a growing anger recently among some reporters that Kelly has not been an honest broker in dealing with the press.
“This story offers a convenient vehicle to run Kelly over with his own lies and not have it look like it’s driven by reporters’ or a newsroom’s personal frustrations,” one reporter said.
Reporters, who preferred to speak anonymously about the people they have to cover, also say they feel as though they are being gaslit, almost comically, by people who should know better. For all the public talk of “fake news,” White House officials deal with the press daily and, in many cases, have normal working relationships with reporters covering the beat. The media’s reaction to the misleading Porter timeline, some reporters say, has therefore been stronger than something like an errant Trump tweet. “Normals lying is treated normally, as opposed to Trump lying,” said another reporter.
The White House did not return a request for comment.
There’s another inconvenient fact for the White House: No other big story has emerged as a news cycle competitor in the past week, which has allowed the media to continue to focus on the changing Porter account. “It’s amazing Trump hasn’t done something ridiculous to change the subject,” said a White House reporter.
Sanders has a few tried-and-true tactics to divert attention in the briefing room from what the press wants to ask about. On Tuesday, she brought Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to the briefing for a Q&A. And in the past, when reporters are bearing down, Sanders often has a handful of conservative reporters she can call on to reliably change the subject. But White House reporters say that hasn’t been the case this time — the briefing room has become united in searching for answers on Porter.
“I think we are so animated about it because the level of fuck-up all around, from Trump and Kelly on down, is just so monumental and baffling, even by their exalted standards,” said another White House reporter.