The Trump White House Still Can’t Get Its Story Straight On Rob Porter
Whether it's the abuse angle or the more serious issue of security clearances, the White House still can't get the story straight on the Rob Porter case.
It’s been nine days since we first learned about the allegations against former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, who has been accused of abuse by both of his former wives and a former girlfriend, and the White House still can’t get its story straight about what it knew and when it knew it:
WASHINGTON — The White House changed its story on Tuesday about how it handled allegations of spousal abuse against Rob Porter, the staff secretary who resigned in disgrace last week, conceding that the F.B.I. told White House career officials last summer about problems in Mr. Porter’s background check. But members of President Trump’s team said top advisers in the West Wing were kept in the dark.
The White House revised its version of events after testimony on Capitol Hill from the F.B.I. director, Christopher A. Wray, contradicted earlier and shifting claims from the West Wing.
At a previously scheduled Senate hearing on Tuesday about threats against the United States, Mr. Wray, in response to a question about Mr. Porter, said the F.B.I. had given the White House final results in January of its background investigation into the former staff secretary. Mr. Wray’s account was directly at odds with previous assertions by Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, and other White House officials who said Mr. Porter’s background check was still underway when the domestic violence abuse allegations from his two former wives came to light last week in news reports.
Mr. Wray’s words strongly suggested that Mr. Porter, who had been given an interim security clearance, was allowed to continue serving in his influential post in the West Wing long after officials had received word of the troublesome accusations. Three officials confirmed late Tuesday that the practice of giving interim security clearances to new hires in the White House was halted last fall by Mr. Trump’s chief of staff. Politico first reported the change.
Mr. Wray’s testimony also raised questions about the credibility of Mr. Trump’s most senior advisers and the degree of tolerance they may have shown to a colleague apparently eager to cover up a past.
According to Mr. Wray, the F.B.I. updated the White House three times in 2017 — in March, July and November — about Mr. Porter’s background check as it progressed. Mr. Wray did not disclose the information that was given to the White House at those times, but according to two people briefed on the matter, the F.B.I. first provided the White House in July with a rundown of the spousal abuse allegations the bureau had uncovered against Mr. Porter.
In November, the F.B.I. provided the White House with additional information about the allegations.
Ms. Sanders insisted Tuesday that senior West Wing officials had not learned about the allegations against Mr. Porter until they surfaced in The Daily Mail because the F.B.I. gave the information to the White House Personnel Security Office, which handles security clearances. The office is in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House and is overseen by Joe Hagin, the deputy chief of staff.
Ms. Sanders said that the security office — which she repeatedly noted was staffed by “career officials,” who would not have been appointed by Mr. Trump — had not yet made a final determination on whether Mr. Porter should receive his security clearance at the time of The Mail’s article.
Still, pressed on whether senior officials — including John F. Kelly, the chief of staff; Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel; and Mr. Hagin — could have been unaware as far back as last summer that such a significant issue had been raised about one of the president’s closest aides, she conceded she could not be certain.
“Not that I’m aware of,” Ms. Sanders said. “I can’t say with 100 percent certainty.”
According to the two people briefed on the matter, the White House security office reviewed the allegations about Mr. Porter in July and saw that the F.B.I. had interviewed Mr. Porter’s two former wives but not Mr. Porter himself. The office asked the F.B.I. to go back and do so, said the two people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the case.
In November, the F.B.I. provided another report to the security office, the two people said, adding that at that point, a final review began to determine whether to grant Mr. Porter a security clearance. As part of that review, three officials in the personnel office, including its head, were supposed to come to their own conclusions about whether to grant the clearance, the people said.
By the time The Mail published its article last week, only one of those officials had made a determination, the two people said, although it is not clear what the official had concluded.
There are two aspects to this story, but the real story involves how the White House has responded to all of this and what that says about the manner in which this White House is being run from top to bottom.
The most attention-grabbing aspect of the story, of course, are the abuse allegations that have been made against Porter by his two ex-wives, both of whom have gone public with their stories, and by a former girlfriend who has chosen to remain anonymous. These charges are serious enough that Porter was the subject of a Protective Order obtained by one of his ex-wives after he tried to physically confront her at the apartment she lived in after their separation. They were also serious enough to leave behind physical evidence in the form of a black eye depicted in a photograph that was given to the press by his first wife. For his part, Porter has denied the allegations and now claims that his first wife’s black eye was due to a household accident. When the reports of Porter’s abuse first surfaced in the press, the White House essentially backed up Porter’s initial denials, and Chief of Staff John Kelly even went so far as to issue his own statement in which he called Porter an honorable man with high ethical standards and a strong work ethic. That position took a sharp turn, though, when the aforementioned pictures from Porter’s first wife, were made public. At that point, the story quickly started to fall apart, and things just went downhill from there.
Since then, we’ve gone through a variety of attempted explanations by the White House in which both Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her deputy Raj Shah have attempted to explain what the White House in general, and Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House Counsel Don McGhan specifically, knew about the allegations against Porter and how they responded to it. Initially both Sanders and Shah said that McGahn and Kelly both didn’t know the details of the charges until the time they hit the press nearly two weeks ago. That story didn’t sound credible to begin with, and has not stood up against the evidence that has come out over the past nine days, including yesterday’s testimony from F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray. Now, the White House is blaming the employees at the White House office responsible for evaluating the Bureau reports prepared as part of the security clearance process. Given the fact that this office is located in the Old Executive Office Building directly adjacent to the White House and that it reports directly to the Deputy Chief of Staff whose office is right next door to Kelly’s, this also fails to withstand credulity. Instead, what seems to be clear is that the White House was aware of the allegations against Porter perhaps as early as January 2017, and in no case no later than July of last year, and that it failed to do anything in response, essentially giving Porter a pass.
Given the response that we’ve seen from the President to the reports about Porter’s abuse against the women in his life, this is hardly surprising. While Sanders has said that the President has allegedly said in private that his he finds Porter’s actions deplorable, his public statements have been quite the opposite. Instead of deploring the conduct of his former employee and expressing sympathy for the women he victimized, President Trump lavished praise on his former Staff Secretary and complaining about a lack of “due process” for men accused of abusive behavior toward women. This, of course, is entirely consistent with the way Trump has reacted to similar complaints against people close to him such as of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Corey Lewandowski, and Roy Moore, as well as his reaction to the allegations made against him by nineteen women after the release of the Access Hollywood tape. Given that history, it’s no surprise that Trump won’t publicly condemn Porter and why his White House keeps falling over itself to explain what happened.
Over and above the abuse allegations, of course, is the fact that Porter was employed for more than a year in a position that gave him access to some of the most sensitive information that the United States Government holds. This happened despite the fact that, like as many a 40 other White House employees, he had failed to qualify for a security clearance yet and was only operating on an interim clearance. Additionally, if the reports about when the White House was made aware of the charges against Porter are accurate then it seems clear that officials were aware that his application for a security clearance would be denied based on the aforementioned allegations and they let him continue in his job anyway. This is quite obviously a serious problem that goes beyond the Porter case itself and concerns a whole host of people who have daily access to classified material and yet lack the final security clearances they are supposed to have, a group that includes Senior Presidential Adviser and Presidential Son-In-Law Jared Kushner. The problem is serious enough that the House Oversight Committee has already opened an investigation into the matter, and it’s likely that we’ll also see an investigation on the Senate side as well, most likely from the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Even at it’s most benign this story is revealing yet again just how incompetent the White House seems to be at management and employee discipline, as well as how cavalier the Administration is when it comes to allegations of abuse by White House employees and, most importantly, the handling of classified information. The last point, of course, is ironic given the fact that Trump spent the Presidential campaign repeatedly hitting Hillary Clinton over the allegation that she mishandled classified information while serving as Secretary of State. At the very least, there’s no small degree of hypocrisy here. At it’s worsst we’re dealing with actual threats to national security due largely to incompetence and disinterest at the highest levels of the White House. This isn’t over yet, folks.