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Fate of Trump's chief of staff hangs in balance as White House weathers fallout from spouse abuse scandal

Hoping to quell furor, the White House scrambled aides Sunday to publicly defend Chief of Staff John F. Kelly.

President Trump, who has pushed out a string of senior aides since taking office, is upset with Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and would like to replace him, but Republican congressional leaders and strategists are strongly counseling him against feeding the perception of an inner circle in nonstop disarray, a person close to the White House said.

Hoping to quell the furor, the White House scrambled aides Sunday to publicly defend Kelly and his handling of the domestic violence allegations against staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned or was fired Wednesday, a day after Kelly had praised him as "a man of integrity and honor."

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The aides denied reports that Kelly had offered his resignation, but they continued to hedge on when Kelly and other senior White House officials learned that Porter's two ex-wives had accused him of physical and emotional abuse. Porter has denied the allegations.

By reminding voters of Trump's own problems with the #MeToo movement against abuse of women, the latest White House turmoil threatened to overshadow, at least for now, the broader GOP efforts to craft a positive message about the economy and the tax cut bill before the November elections.

Three top White House officials — legislative director Marc Short, budget director Mick Mulvaney and senior advisor Kellyanne Conway — fanned out to Sunday talk shows to say Trump has full confidence in Kelly despite the questions about when he learned that Porter's two ex-wives had told the FBI of his violent outbursts.

That placed the White House in the awkward position of accepting as credible the women's allegations against Porter, even as Trump took to Twitter on Saturday to defend the right of "due process" for those accused of abusive behavior or sexual misconduct — not to defend the victims.

"Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation," Trump wrote. "Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused - life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?"

More than a dozen women have publicly accused Trump of sexual harassment or assault over a period of many years. He says they are all lying and has dismissed a 2005 audio recording from the TV show "Access Hollywood" that captured him boasting in vulgar terms about such behavior as "locker room" talk.

The Porter controversy has brought intense scrutiny of Kelly's role in protecting him, but Conway said on ABC's "This Week" that Trump "is not actively searching for replacements" for the retired Marine four-star general, who has sought to impose discipline on a chaotic West Wing.

Conway said Trump also has full confidence in Hope Hicks, a former campaign aide who became White House communications director. News reports have said Hicks was romantically involved with Porter and helped craft an initial forceful White House statement defending him.

A person close to the White House, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the president had not authorized him to characterize their private conversations, said he expects Trump to keep Kelly rather than choose a third chief of staff. Kelly replaced Reince Priebus, who served in the White House for only six months.

"I would say 95% certain that Kelly will stay," the person said, adding that the president was disturbed and caught by surprise by the Porter episode, particularly since it involved Hicks, whom he trusts deeply.

But Kelly's ability to be effective has suffered. Over and over again the past few days, various White House aides have buttonholed reporters to tell them — anonymously — that they think Kelly either lied to them or tried to get them to lie about what he knew when.

In their Sunday talk-show appearances, the White House aides sought to downplay those concerns.

Speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," Short said he did not know "who knew what when" about the ex-wives' statements to the FBI regarding Porter, which apparently prevented him from obtaining more than an interim security clearance.

More than a year into the Trump administration, Short also defended the White House's practice of allowing people with only interim security clearances to access some of the nation's most highly classified intelligence materials.

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Those staffers include Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a senior advisor with a portfolio that includes a search for peace in the Middle East. Kushner also has been caught up in the special counsel investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election for his meetings with Russian officials during the campaign.

The churn of turnover has been a constant in an otherwise unpredictable White House.

Trump lost his national security advisor Michael Flynn within weeks due to his own meetings with Russians, and he was followed out the door by short-lived communications director Anthony Scaramucci, Priebus and chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. So has another Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos. Paul Manafort, who served as Trump's campaign manager, was arrested last October and is awaiting trial on charges of fraud and conspiracy. So is Richard Gates, who was deputy chair of the Trump campaign.

The wrenching departures have taken their toll on the president.

"He was just completely isolated," said the person close to the White House. "People with him from the start are gone."

As is often the case, the president made the task of those trying to smooth over a controversy more difficult. Both Conway and Short said the White House takes the issue of domestic violence very seriously despite the president's tweet Saturday that seemed to defend the accused, not the victim.

Asked about the tweet on CNN's "State of the Union," Conway said she had "no reason not to believe the women" who accused Porter of violence when the FBI interviewed them in connection with his security clearance.

"In this case, you have contemporaneous police reports, you have women speaking to the FBI under threat of perjury ... you have photographs, and when you look at all of that pulled together, Rob Porter did the right thing by resigning," Conway said.

Short said on NBC that he believes Trump is "very disturbed" by the allegations. But he also said Trump's attitude was "shaped by a lot of false accusations against him [Trump] in the past."

Kelly and other senior aides were aware by late last fall of Porter's difficulty in obtaining a clearance due to accusations by his former wives, but it was not clear whether Kelly was aware of the extent of the alleged physical abuse.

Some Democrats piled on, questioning Kelly's viability in the job.

"Hard to see how Kelly survives," David Axelrod, a former senior aide to President Obama, tweeted. He said either Kelly didn't know what he should have, or "likely truth, based on the timeline: He knew and looked the other way."

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Axelrod, now a commentator, called the handling of the matter "a textbook case of how not to deal with a bad situation" — which he said was made worse not only by Kelly, but also by Trump.

Mulvaney, whose name has been floated as a possible replacement for Kelly, sought to dispel any indication he was seeking the position.

"I don't want that job," Mulvaney said on CBS' "Face the Nation." He added: "I think the chief of staff is doing a really good job — and most importantly, I think the president thinks he's doing a great job as well."

UPDATES:

2:28 p.m.: This story was updated with additional quotes and background on staff problems at the White House.

11:59 a.m.: This article was updated with comment from person close to Trump, background on White House personnel changes, other details.

This article was originally published at 10:55 a.m.

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