CNN | 2/18/2018 | Español | Listen

GOP worries White House can't quell Porter scandal

Updated 9:01 AM ET, Wed February 14, 2018

Washington (CNN) - Republicans are growing increasingly concerned at President Donald Trump's inability to quiet the Rob Porter abuse scandal, which has engulfed the administration even as it works to capitalize on recent successes.

Inside the West Wing, staffers have voiced concern at the continued messaging failures. Even Trump himself has told friends and informal advisers during phone calls that he's unsure how he can stop the continued fallout, people familiar with the conversations said.

For Trump and his staff, the swirl of scandal surrounding the former staff secretary, who was accused of domestic abuse by two ex-wives, has appeared perfectly mis-timed. Instead of basking in an approval rating uptick spurred by economic growth, the White House has spent the past week triaging a self-created crisis. Even inside the West Wing, most agree the response to the domestic violence allegations was bungled.

Across the GOP's ideological spectrum, Republicans this week have bemoaned how aides responded to the controversy and allowed it to obscure the administration's messaging on the economy. An erratic President, already prone to stamping out the day's intended message with angry bursts on Twitter, has seemed unable to quell the furor.

Many Republicans, already facing a swell of activist opposition from women, regard the episode as yet another mishap by a White House that's done little to help expand support for Republicans beyond the core base of voters who elected Trump, including among women.

"I think he needs to send a stronger message," said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, on CNN. "We need to allow women and men that have been abused to come out, make sure their stories are heard and believed."

Surrounding chaos

The chaos surrounding Porter's departure from the White House only underscored the anxieties nagging at Republicans as they head into this year's midterm election campaign. Instead of striking a conciliatory tone, Trump has fueled the notion -- advanced by Democrats -- that he's indifferent to the claims of women who say they were abused.

Trump has not himself expressed concern for or repudiation of acts of spousal abuse since the claims against Porter first emerged a week ago. Instead, he's praised Porter's character and insisted that those accused of violence be awarded due process. Meanwhile, Trump's aides have struggled to explain who in the White House knew about the allegations before they were reported in the Daily Mail.

"I think it was mishandled," said Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has frequently criticized Trump. "The White House said they handled it poorly. Or could have handled it better. I agree."

Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, criticized the White House over its handling of the Porter situation, calling the efforts "very disconnected" and "not consistent."

"They really made some errors in their own communication in what they're really trying to say," Lankford said.

Others on Capitol Hill professed to be not following the unfolding developments, which have preoccupied aides in the White House.

"Oh, I haven't paid attention. I've had my head down thinking about other issues and that's not what I've been focused on," said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Louisiana, who was wearing Mardi Gras beads in honor of the celebration underway in his home state.

On Monday, instead of fielding questions about Trump's budget proposal or his long-awaited infrastructure plan, press secretary Sarah Sanders spent nearly 20 minutes on live television responding to the Porter controversy during her daily briefing. Later, Trump's budget director, Mick Mulvaney, took to the same podium to outline the budget proposal, but his presentation wasn't on camera.

In the week since the allegations against Porter first emerged, Trump has not spoken out in person against domestic violence. Sanders read a statement on Monday that she claimed was dictated by Trump himself, declaring that he "supports victims of domestic violence and believes every one should be treated fairly."

But during a parade of on-camera events over the past days Trump has declined to offer that support himself.

"The messaging right now from the White House just isn't good on this," said Jason Miller, who served as communications director for Trump's presidential campaign, where he said Trump had expressed disdain for accused domestic abusers in private. "I wish we would have seen that same emotion from the President on Friday."

Privately, some Trump loyalists have expressed dismay at how the White House has handled the storm of controversy around the Porter allegations, which they believe could have been mitigated with a statement from the President.

"I don't understand why the White House is hedging on condemning domestic abuse," one GOP congressional source said. "They can't get their story straight."

Turning a new page?

Before the scandal, many Republicans thought they were turning a new page. Trump's approval rating had begun ticking upward, and polls gauging Republicans' prospects ahead of the November congressional elections -- the so-called "generic ballot" -- had started to improve.

Trump himself is due back on the campaign trail next week in the Pittsburgh area to appear at a rally for Rick Saccone, a Republican running in a special election. He's said he expects to campaign heavily for Republicans ahead of the coming midterms.

Congressional leaders had hoped the focus would remain on the sweeping tax cuts that Trump signed into law late last year. The benefits of the cuts are just being seen on Americans' paychecks. Businesses have continued offering bonuses to workers as a result of the corporate rate slash.

But despite the White House's best efforts this week, including inviting Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to the White House briefing on Tuesday to discuss Trump's infrastructure push, the story has remained squarely on the Porter fallout.

"Typically, the White House has been able to change the topic with a simple tweet. Every twist and turn of the story ensures that it will continue to be talked about, and negatively so," said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who has worked for the Republican National Committee and on Capitol Hill.

"President Trump's approval has rebounded somewhat following positive coverage of the tax bill and the President's first significant legislative achievement. That is where they should want to return the focus -- on positive economic news they can tout throughout the country," Heye said. "Any missed opportunity to do so does not just affect the President, but distracts from a positive message for Republican congressional candidates throughout the country."


© 2017 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Listen to CNN (low-bandwidth usage)

Go to the full CNN experience