The White House is flailing with the Rob Porter scandal right now. And Tuesday afternoon laid that bare.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was peppered with questions after FBI Director Christopher A. Wray earlier in the day seemed to contradict the White House’s timeline. But although her answers might have explained what Wray said, they conflict with what the White House had said previously.
In Wray’s testimony in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee, he said the FBI had closed its handling of Porter’s background investigation for a security clearance in January. Wray said: “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, soon thereafter, we received request for follow-up inquiry, and we did the follow-up and provided that information in November; and that we administratively closed the file in January.”
That seemed problematic, given that the White House had suggested Porter’s security clearance process had been ongoing. In response, Sanders said at Tuesday afternoon’s briefing that the FBI’s process was indeed done but that the White House personnel security office “had not completed their process” and had still been deciding what to recommend about Porter. In other words, the FBI’s process was done, but the overall process was not. Hence, he had still been employed at a high level in the White House with a temporary clearance. The Washington Post reported last week that dozens of White House employees are awaiting permanent clearances, including President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
There are two big problems regarding Sanders’s statement:
- It’s completely different from the White House’s previous explanations, and
- It suggests the White House personnel security office is somehow ... not in the White House?
Ever since the Porter debacle became a scandal, with the Trump aide resigning in the face of multiple accusations of spousal abuse, the White House has suggested that it was basically hamstrung by the fact that the security clearance process hadn’t concluded.
“This is a process that doesn’t operate within the White House,” Sanders said Monday. “It’s handled by our law enforcement and intelligence community. And we support that process.”
Deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah said much the same thing last week while standing in for Sanders at a briefing.
“I’m not going to get into the specifics of the investigation itself,” Shah said. “I think that’s a question for the FBI and others. But, you know, this is not our process.” Shah added at another point that Porter’s “background investigation was ongoing.”
Except now the word is that the background investigation wasn’t ongoing and that that process had moved inside the White House — or at least within a section of the White House that deals with such matters.
But even now, the argument seems to be that whatever the personnel security office knew didn’t make its way to top officials like Chief of Staff John F. Kelly. Sanders said Monday, after all, that “we learned of the extent of the situation involving Rob Porter last Tuesday evening” — Feb. 6.
At the time, it seemed Sanders was leaning pretty hard on the meaning of the word “extent.” Did she mean they knew everything but hadn’t seen the pictures of Porter’s alleged abuse? Is she suggesting the personnel security office didn’t share all its information with senior officials? The White House hasn’t elaborated.
What we know now, though, is that someone inside the White House had lots of information about Porter — all the information the FBI had — before Feb. 6. Which is a far cry from how the White House has explained this over the past week.