The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Rob Porter debacle just became the Rob Porter scandal

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, left, walks with staff secretary Rob Porter on Nov. 29, 2017. (Evan Vucci/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Update: And now we learn that, according to White House staff, Kelly tried to get aides to pass along a version of his actions that they consider to be untrue. Kelly reportedly wanted them to say he acted to remove Porter within 40 minutes of learning the abuse allegations against him were credible. As I argued, it's the latest sign that Kelly is treading water.

White House spokesman Raj Shah wouldn't elaborate Thursday on when Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and others became aware of allegations of spousal abuse by former staff secretary Rob Porter. And now we know why: It's pretty damning.

The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey and Beth Reinhard report that White House counsel Donald McGahn knew for a year about allegations Porter's ex-wives made against him to the FBI and that Kelly learned about them this fall, as they were holding up Porter's full security clearance. And yet Porter kept rising in the White House.

It's really difficult not to call this a scandal now.

It's not clear that either McGahn or Kelly knew the full extent of the allegations or that they included spousal abuse, but the best possible explanation is that they seemed to have a real lack of curiosity. It also raises the question of who else in the White House knew, including the president himself.

As Dawsey and Reinhard report, McGahn had access to the FBI file on Porter's background investigation but appeared to take Porter's word for it that there was nothing to be seriously concerned about:

A White House official said McGahn was only aware that ex-wives were prepared to make damaging accusations about him but did not ask what the accusations were because Porter said they were not true.
A White House official said the FBI's findings never reached McGahn himself in June.
When McGahn informed Kelly this fall about the reason for the security clearance holdup, he agreed that Porter should remain and said he was surprised to learn that the 40-year-old had ex-wives.
Talk about Porter’s past started spreading throughout the White House after a former girlfriend told McGahn in November that he should investigate the abuse alleged by the ex-wives, according to people familiar with the matter. The former girlfriend, who also works in the administration, declined to comment Thursday.

Despite all of this, the White House's first reaction this week to news of the spousal abuse allegations against Porter was to effusively praise and defend him. Kelly said in a statement that Porter was “a man of true integrity and honor, and I can't say enough good things about him.” Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “The person I know is someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character.”

Rob Porter's ex-wife Jennie Willoughby told The Post in an interview that the White House aide was abusive during their marriage. (Video: Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

The White House has pushed back against allegations of sexual harassment and assault by President Trump himself. It also endorsed and defended Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore in the face of multiple allegations that he pursued and engaged in sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. The White House seemed to believe it could weather this storm, too, as long as this was a rather anonymous staffer and it was a he-said-she-said (or, more aptly, a he-said-they-said).

That seemed to change when one of Porter's ex-wives, Colbie Holderness, released photos of the black eye she says she sustained when Porter hit her. Shah suggested Thursday from the White House podium that this changed things for the White House and influenced Kelly's decision to issue a new statement calling the allegations “shocking.”

“It’s the full nature of the allegation — particularly the images,” Shah said when asked why Kelly changed course.

Yet those photos didn't lead Porter to really change much of anything about his story. He said he took them but that “the reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described.”

In other words, what really seems to have changed for the White House is that they realized the pictures made their position untenable, from a public relations standpoint. Even when they were confronted with information about Porter that they didn't care to seek out themselves — as they were promoting him up the ranks — they played it off as if it were a minor nuisance.

They seemed to try their hardest not to find out whether someone they respected as a colleague might have done something truly awful, and when they did, they were prepared to defend him until they could no longer do so, because of either hubris or incompetence. And now they have a full-blown scandal on their hands.