White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders struggled Monday to explain the administration’s shifting response to spousal abuse allegations against former senior aide Rob Porter, providing answers in the daily press briefing that were incomplete or that conflicted with the accounts of other aides or previous White House comments.
Sanders would not provide detailed answers on why a senior aide whose two ex-wives had told the FBI early last year they were abused continued to see classified information and work in the president’s inner sanctum. She also would not say why dozens of White House officials still do not have permanent security clearances 13 months into the administration.
Sanders declined to explain why Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told aides and the news media he acted “within 40 minutes” of learning of the accusations against Porter last Tuesday even though he then continued to publicly praise Porter for almost 24 hours, with White House officials saying Kelly wanted Porter to stay in the job.
“I can tell you that a conversation took place within 40 minutes,” she said. “And beyond that, I really don’t have anything else to add.”
Sanders also would not engage on the role played by White House Counsel Donald McGahn, who knew for a year that Porter’s ex-wives might make damaging accusations that could cost him a security clearance but did nothing, according to people familiar with the situation. The FBI also provided its initial findings regarding Porter to the White House over the summer, and McGahn was reportedly told by Porter’s ex-girlfriend in November about the accusations by his ex-wives.
“Not accurate,” Sanders said without elaborating.
She repeatedly dodged when asked why Trump had not publicly expressed sympathy for the victims or condemned domestic violence personally. The president’s only public comments have defended Porter. In the past, Trump has defended several powerful men accused of sexual harassment or misconduct, including Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly.
“The president and the entire administration take domestic violence very seriously and believe all allegations need to be investigated thoroughly,” she said. “Above all, the president supports victims of domestic violence and believes everyone deserves to be treated fairly and with due process.”
“The president wants the best for all Americans,” Sanders said, explaining why Trump said he wanted Porter to have a good career. “The president hopes all Americans can be successful in whatever they do.”
She repeatedly used the phrase “due process” to explain why the president defended Porter.
Porter’s departure following the publication last week of allegations of spousal abuse by his two ex-wives has rattled Trump’s White House and led to internal tensions, with the president privately griping about Kelly and musing about replacements, according to people who have spoken to Trump. So far, he seems inclined to complain and do little more.
The episode has distracted aides from a number of policy issues on the president’s agenda, such as a new infrastructure plan and the immigration debate, according to senior officials.
For days the White House struggled to give a consistent story on what happened regarding Porter’s dismissal and when senior officials learned of the allegations against him. White House officials have also given contrasting answers as to whether the situation was handled properly.
Budget director Mick Mulvaney said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that what happened was “completely reasonable and normal.” Appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” the same day, Marc Short, the head of legislative affairs, said the White House could have handled the situation better while also taking a shot at NBC over its handling of sexual misconduct allegations against former anchor Matt Lauer.
“The FBI runs this clearance process,” Short said. “And when they provide somebody an interim clearance, that means they’ve done an initial vet, and say ‘this person is okay.’ ”
Sanders said the administration learned the “extent” of the allegations against Porter last Tuesday, even though senior aides had known for months there could be problems, according to people familiar with the matter.
Sanders said Kelly told others he took decisive action because he had a “conversation” with Kelly within 40 minutes. Kelly told aides he secured the resignation within 40 minutes. That assertion wasn’t true, senior officials said.
The administration has faced a number of questions over whether Porter and others in the White House without permanent security clearances for so long should have been able to continue to see classified information.
Sanders responded by deflecting and criticizing the media.
“You guys are the ones who publish classified information and put national security at risk,” she told reporters, her voice rising.