This article has been updated.
There is one key question at the heart of the White House response to accusations of spousal abuse against former White House staff secretary Rob Porter: When did they know?
This question is key for two reasons.
The first is that the accusations against Porter apparently contributed to his not receiving permanent clearance to handle classified material. If the White House knew before media reports this month that these accusations meant he wouldn’t receive clearance, it raises questions about his remaining in a position that almost certainly meant handling highly classified documents.
The second is a political one: Did the White House ignore serious allegations against a senior staffer, despite Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s apparent insistence that he acted quickly upon learning of the scale of the accusations?
On Tuesday, we learned two new things about who knew what and when, with two new additions to the timeline that answer the bigger question.
The White House should have known for months that Porter wouldn’t receive clearance for some more time because, at least in part, of these accusations. And even after photographs of one of Porter’s ex-wives were published showing her with a black eye, the White House tried to defend Porter to the media.
In testimony before a Senate subcommittee on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher A. Wray explained the timeline of the FBI’s background check into Porter.
“What I can tell you is that the FBI submitted a partial report on the investigation in question in March, and then a completed background investigation in late July, that is — soon thereafter we received requests for follow-up inquiry, and we did the follow-up, and provided that information in November. And then we administratively closed the file in January. And then earlier this month we received some additional information and we passed that on as well.”
That’s just the FBI’s sharing of information with the White House, which was fully completed — following two previous reports — in November. We know, too, that there were other ways in which the White House could have been or was informed about the abuse accusations.
In January 2017, Porter told White House counsel Donald McGahn that he expected his ex-wives to raise issues, though it’s not clear if he detailed those issues. In April, one of Porter’s ex-wives wrote a public blog post about abuse. In September, McGahn learned that Porter wouldn’t get clearance and raised it with Kelly (who wasn’t aware that Porter had ex-wives). Porter’s then-girlfriend reportedly reached out to the White House in November about Porter’s alleged abuse. She had broken up with Porter, the Daily Mail reports, after discovering that he was carrying on a relationship with White House communications director Hope Hicks.
Since Porter’s resignation last week, the White House has tried to distance itself from any idea that it had known about the accusations. On Monday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told the White House press corps that the FBI’s background check of Porter hadn’t been concluded.
“We let the process play out,” she said. “It was ongoing, hadn’t been completed.”
Wray’s testimony seemingly contradicts that.
Update: During the daily press briefing, Sanders said that the White House Personnel Security Office had received the final report from the FBI last year but had not made a recommendation to the administration about Porter’s clearance.
What’s more, Kelly has insisted that he acted quickly to oust Porter once he learned about the seriousness of the accusations last Wednesday. On Tuesday of last week, though, he offered a statement to the Daily Mail defending Porter.
“Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor,” Kelly said, “and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”
Overnight the photo of Porter’s ex-wife Colbie Holderness was published on Twitter. The Daily Mail reported it early Wednesday morning.
After that, though, the White House reportedly invited reporters to hear Porter’s side of the story directly from him, according to reporting from Politico. What’s more, Axios reported last week that on the morning of Feb. 7, White House staffers were encouraging Porter to “stay and fight” for his job — a report that undercuts Kelly’s insistence that he insisted Porter resign within “40 minutes” of being briefed on the allegations.
In other words, the White House was given assessments of Porter’s background on multiple occasions in 2017, and the FBI closed out its investigations into him by last month without granting him clearance. When the news of Porter’s alleged spousal abuse became public, the White House tried to defend him.
President Trump, of course, has continued to defend Porter, both to the media and on Twitter.
During the press briefing on Monday, Sanders — who, Politico’s Elaina Johnson reports, may have been out of the loop — tried to defend the practical problem of Porter not having permanent clearance to handle classified material.
“I think we’re taking every step we can to protect classified information,” she told the reporters asking about Porter’s position. She continued: “If you guys have real concerns about leaking out classified information — look around this room. You guys are the ones that publish classified information and put national security at risk. That doesn’t come from this White House.”
In other words, she offered no substantive defense.