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Top White House officials knew of abuse allegations against top aide for months

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)

White House Counsel Donald McGahn knew one year ago that staff secretary Rob Porter’s ex-wives were prepared to make damaging accusations about him that could threaten his security clearance but allowed him to serve as an influential gatekeeper and aide to President Trump without investigating the accusations, according to people familiar with the matter.

Chief of Staff John F. Kelly learned this fall about the allegations of spousal abuse and that they were delaying Porter’s security clearance amid an ongoing FBI investigation. But Kelly handed Porter more responsibilities to control the flow of information to the president.

Porter, who denied the “vile” allegations, resigned Wednesday after the ex-wives’ accounts of years of verbal and physical abuse were published, along with graphic pictures of Colbie Holderness, his first wife, bruised from what she said was a punch to the face.

Deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah on Feb. 8 said the White House “could have done better” in its response to allegations of abuse against Rob Porter. (Video: Reuters)

The episode has thrust Trump’s senior-most aides, many of whom have already been embroiled in controversy related to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, into yet another crisis.

McGahn and other West Wing officials are under increasing pressure to explain why Porter was kept in a key role in which he had access to classified information and helped determine which articles and policy proposals made it to the president’s desk while top Trump officials were aware for months of at least some of the serious allegations against him.

On Thursday, White House spokesman Raj Shah said the White House was allowing the issue to play out through the security-clearance review process, arguing that it was the appropriate place for the allegations and Porter’s denials to be assessed.

“We should not short-circuit an investigation just because allegations are made, unless they could compromise national security, or interfere with operations at the White House,” Shah said. “The truth must be determined, and that was what was going on with Rob Porter. His background investigation was ongoing.”

In January 2017, when McGahn learned of the allegations, he wanted Porter to stay put because he saw the Harvard Law-trained Capitol Hill veteran as a steadying, professional voice in the White House, according to people familiar with the matter. His view didn’t change in June when the FBI flagged some of its findings to the White House. Nor did he act in September when he learned that the domestic violence claims were delaying Porter’s security clearance, or in November when Porter’s former girlfriend contacted him about the allegations, according to these people.

A White House spokesman said that McGahn — who had access to the FBI’s background investigation file conducted for Porter’s security clearance — and Kelly feel misled by Porter, saying he downplayed his ex-wives’ accusations in conversations with them.

In a late phone call Thursday, McGahn said Porter did not tell him one year ago that his ex-wives accused him of domestic violence.

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. Porter is having a romantic relationship with White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, and that relationship led the former girlfriend to come forward, according to White House officials. Hicks helped draft some of the early White House responses to the allegations against Porter.

President Trump was not told of the accusations until this week, two senior officials said, after they were first published by the Daily Mail, and he had grown fond of Porter in his job, which often put him by the president’s side.

Trump was also recently surprised to learn that Porter was dating Hicks, according to the officials.

McGahn received a call from the ex-girlfriend in late November, officials said. McGahn made other officials aware of the accusations she communicated but took no concrete steps, the official said. 

McGahn declined to comment through a White House spokesman.

The support for an alleged batterer who served 13 months in a sensitive White House post is fueling scrutiny of the bench marks for disqualifying top staffers or denying them full security clearances. Three Senate Democrats on Thursday called for an investigation into the administration’s process for determining access to classified information, citing concerns “over the apparent low and inconsistent threshold the Trump White House uses for obtaining an interim security clearance.” Porter had an interim clearance, which means he can travel with the president on Air Force One and present him with classified documents.

John Kelly’s credibility at risk after defending aide accused of domestic violence.

The White House’s public posture Thursday stood in stark contrast to the defensive approach it took when the accusations against Porter by his two ex-wives were first published Tuesday.

On Wednesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Porter had the White House’s support and that the decision to resign was his own. She also said his departure from the White House was not imminent.

“I can tell you that Rob has been effective in his role as staff secretary, and the president and chief of staff have had full confidence and trust in his abilities and his performance,” she told reporters.

On Thursday, amid the growing controversy, Shah said Porter had cleaned out his desk that morning and would not be back. He also said Porter had been “terminated,” before later clarifying that he had resigned.

Shah said Kelly was not “fully aware” of the alleged spousal abuse until Wednesday, when he saw the pictures of Holderness with a black eye. But White House officials said Kelly pushed Porter to stay in the job even after the release of the photos.

Kelly staunchly defended Porter’s integrity in a statement Tuesday before saying late Wednesday, after the photos of Holderness’s black eye were published, that he was “shocked by the new allegations” against the staffer, who reports directly to him.

Holderness and Jennie Willoughby, Porter’s second wife, both said they were contacted and interviewed in January 2017 by the FBI about their back-to-back marriages to Porter between 2003 and 2013. Holderness, a 37-year-old senior analyst at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, said she provided photos of the black eye she said he delivered during a 2005 vacation in Florence. Willoughby, a 39-year-old writer and motivational speaker, said she authorized investigators to obtain a protective order she filed in 2010 after he refused to leave her Arlington, Va., apartment, in violation of their separation agreement. She said he returned the next day and broke glass in the door with his fist.

The FBI had contacts with the ex-wives a second time, in September. Willoughby alerted investigators Sept. 22 that she had received a call from Porter the previous day, demanding to know whether she had used the word “violent” with the FBI to describe his behavior. Porter was angry, she said, that he had still not received his security clearance. 

Three days later, the FBI again contacted Holderness, she said, asking whether she had been contacted by anyone regarding Porter. She said she hadn’t. The FBI also asked Porter to explain Holderness’s black eye, according to a person familiar with the conversation. It’s unclear what he told investigators. He has privately told others that they were arguing over a vase, and she was somehow hit with the vase.

Publicly, Porter cast the allegations as part of a “coordinated smear campaign” in a statement Wednesday. Willoughby and Holderness said they gave interviews only after being contacted earlier this week by reporters for the Daily Mail and the Intercept asking about a blog post Willoughby wrote in April that described spousal abuse but did not name Porter.

The FBI investigation into his security clearance was never closed, according to Shah. Law enforcement officials said the FBI does not make any security clearance determinations or recommendations, but rather provides a report at the end of an investigation to the hiring agency, which makes the decision.

John Wagner and Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.