Amid expectations that his resignation could be imminent, ABC News reported late Friday that Chief of Staff John Kelly has told President Donald Trump that he'd be willing to resign over the West Wing's bungled handling of allegations of spousal abuse levied against former staff secretary Rob Porter - a Kelly protege once seen as the likely candidate to fill the long-vacant deputy chief of staff job.
However, in an unusual flipping of the script for the Trump administration, a White House spokesperson said Kelly had not expressed interest in resigning. Typically, senior administration officials tell the press they left voluntarily, while White House press representatives have implied or outright stated that they were fired. This was famously the case with Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and former aide Sebastian Gorka.
Meanwhile, Kelly denied reports that he offered to resign to NBC.
Furthermore, ABC News added that sources inside the West Wing say they do not believe Kelly's departure is imminent. The retired general and chief of staff worked a full day Friday and was seen leading his regularly scheduled staff meeting. As we noted earlier, rumors had circulated that Trump had floated the idea of replacing Kelly with OMB chief Mick Mulvaney, who is also interim director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. However, Mulvaney's plate overfull already, and it isn't clear how he would manage juggling three high-level administration jobs. The White House chief of staff is one of the most important positions in the West Wing and he or she often serves as the final gatekeeper for the president.
After the departure of former chief of staff Reince Preibus over the summer, Trump brought on Kelly - then the head of the Department of Homeland Security - to impose a sense of discipline in the West Wing. His efforts were widely reported to be successful, though they aggravated other senior staff who saw their access to the president curtailed.
In addition to Mulvaney, ABC said Trump is reportedly considering top economic adviser Gary Cohn and Freedom Caucus Leader Mark Meadows. Trump also reportedly offered the job to longtime confidante Thomas Barrack Jr., the founder of Colony NorthStar.
"General Kelly has not offered his resignation to the President," White House Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement. When asked if Kelly has expressed interest in offering his resignation, Gidley said "Not to my knowledge, no."
Reports that Kelly, White House Counsel Don McGahn and other senior aides knew about Porter's misconduct, but continued to promote him any way, infuriated Trump, who has little tolerance for aides who bring down negative press attention on the president and his administration.
While the Trump administration experienced an embarrassingly high level of turnover during its first eight months, Kelly reportedly helped stanch the flow of departures. Though both Porter and former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe have resigned over the last two weeks.
The issue of Porter's spousal abuse came up during his application for a security clearance, which he was eventually granted. An ex-girlfriend of Porter's also reportedly told Kelly that Porter's ex-wives were willing to publicly accuse him of abuse.
In another interesting twist, Porter is rumored to be dating White House Communications Director Hope Hicks.
According to CNBC, questions about the timeline events emerged Friday when Kelly said he fired Porter shortly after learning about the allegations Tuesday night. "40 minutes later he was gone," Kelly said.
Kelly had initially defended Porter as an "honorable" man.
"Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can't say enough good things about him," Kelly said Tuesday. "He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional," he said at the time. "I am proud to serve alongside him."
On Friday, when asked to clarify the timeline of what happened, Kelly said that he found out Tuesday night "that the accusations were true."
Porter officially resigned Wednesday, after photos of an ex-wife's bruised face were published.
"Forty minutes later he was gone," Kelly added Friday. Pressed for further clarification about whether he ordered Porter's termination, at first Kelly said "yes." But then he quickly added: "Actually, he made the decision 40 minutes later." In a statement Wednesday night, however, Kelly had said he accepted Porter's resignation earlier Wednesday.
As the New York Times points out, Kelly often used the threat of resigning as a way to help mitigate Trump's behavior.
The Times continued to paint a picture of a West Wing in disarray, with senior aides blaming each other for the scandal, while Trump privately complains to outside confidants.
Two West Wing advisers and a third person painted a picture of a White House staff riven and confused, with fingers being pointed in all directions and the president complaining privately about Mr. Kelly.
At this point, it's still possible that Kelly could be shown the door. But Trump has also feuded with at least two of the men reportedly under consideration to replace him (Meadows and Cohn, who himself narrowly escaped a firing and rumors that he intended to depart at the end of 2017).
Given Kelly's utility to the organization - something that's been widely recognized by the press - we imagine the president might be reluctant to let him walk out the door, despite his other recent transgressions, which included calling Dreamers "lazy" and suggesting that Trump's initial views on building a border wall were "uninformed."
As Trump mulls over the issue tonight, we wouldn't be surprised to see the president himself offer some clarification into his thinking during one of his famous Saturday morning tweetstorms.