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White House portrayal of security office conflicts with its role in past administrations

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, left, and staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned last week following allegations of domestic abuse, walk across the South Lawn in November. (Jabin Botsford)

The White House’s portrayal of the role played by an obscure security office in the spiraling controversy over allegations of domestic abuse against a top aide appears to conflict with how the office operated in past administrations and raises additional questions about whether higher-ups sat on information or shielded the politically connected staffer.

The Trump administration has said staff secretary Rob Porter’s security-clearance investigation remained open because the White House Personnel Security Office, which approves clearances, had not finished its work. Administration officials also have suggested that results of that investigation were closely held within the office, a practice disputed by people who worked on both sides of such investigations in past administrations.

Porter remained as White House staff secretary, with access to highly classified material, months after the claims were reported to the FBI and well before he resigned last week after the allegations of physical and emotional abuse from his two ex-wives became public.

“The White House Personnel Security Office, staffed by career officials, received information last year and what they considered to be the final background investigation report in November,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday. “They had not made a final recommendation for adjudication to the White House, because the process was still ongoing when Rob Porter resigned.”

The White House’s decision to call attention to the security office came hours after FBI Director Christopher A. Wray told a congressional committee that his agency had informed the White House about the status of the Porter case at three points in 2017.

Asked about the apparent contradiction with earlier White House accounts, Sanders said that information went to the security office, not to West Wing higher-ups.

Sanders referred to the bureaucratic office by name 12 times when answering questions from reporters at Tuesday’s White House press briefing.

The security office is not part of the main White House staff operation. Located outside the West Wing, it has an independent director who is not a political appointee. Its work, however, falls under the broader aegis of the White House chief of staff’s office.

Neither Sanders nor other White House officials speaking publicly about the Porter case had previously mentioned the office, instead focusing on the role of the FBI in investigating the claims, which Porter denies.

“In the view of Personnel Security Office, the FBI’s July report required significant additional investigatory fieldwork before Personnel Security Office could begin to evaluate the information for adjudication,” Sanders said, reading from a prepared statement.

The construction, while apparently technically correct, does not fully address why the question of Porter’s security clearance and suitability remained open more than a year after he began working for President Trump.

It also appears to elevate and distort the role of the security office as the arbiter of what would be a legal, political and public relations decision involving a president’s closest aides, according to interviews with nearly a dozen current and former officials who worked on clearances or went through the process as political appointees over four administrations.

Rudy Mehrbani, who worked in the White House counsel’s office and later directed the Presidential Personnel Office under President Barack Obama, said that if staffers in the security office found troubling information, they would often flag it mid-process for a lawyer in the counsel’s office.

“They don’t have to wait to report that to other folks in the White House,” Mehrbani said. “It wasn’t unusual for them to notify us if they thought there was something worth discussing.”

The FBI submitted an initial report in March, a completed report in July and an updated version in November after the security office asked for additional “fieldwork,” Sanders said Tuesday, declining to offer more specifics.

By November, both of Porter’s ex-wives had detailed alleged abuse and, in one case, provided photos of bruises. The FBI also gained access to a police restraining order.

“It looks like they are kind of fuzzing it up because somebody sat on it,” said one former federal official who worked on security clearances for officials in Republican and Democratic administrations but has no direct knowledge of the Porter case.

That former federal official, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive case, noted that as long as Porter’s case file was officially open, the White House could avoid a final determination on whether the abuse claims rendered him unfit.

Sanders said she knew of no communication about the open file between the security office and White House political officials, such as Chief of staff John F. Kelly, his deputy, Joe Hagin, or White House counsel Donald McGahn.

“I can’t say with 100 percent certainty, but not that I’m aware of,” Sanders said.

That suggests a departure from the way problematic information is frequently handled during the clearance process, according to current and former officials.

The security office routinely flags issues such as drug use, financial problems or marital infidelity to political higher-ups, several former officials said. That may mean a discreet phone call, message or visit to the office of the White House counsel or chief of staff.

“We’re not talking about an office that was in a separate branch of government,” Mehrbani said. “It’s not hard for them to pick up the phone and relay their concerns.”

With senior staffers, the clearance decision could be made by the White House counsel, particularly if there were any issues, he said.

If no issues arose, the security office would typically notify staffers that they had received their clearance, according to Mehrbani.

A former senior official in the Obama White House said that her past use of marijuana was discussed with her at multiple points during the background investigation managed by the security office, at first by a lawyer in the White House counsel’s office and later by the deputy chief of staff.

The official, who requested anonymity to share sensitive personal information, said that she was told she would need to submit to random drug testing to serve, a condition to which she agreed.

Douglas Graham, who worked on vetting senior officials, said, “Obama White House staffers, after receiving a job offer and before their first day at the White House, were interviewed by a staff member in the office of the White House counsel who asked them to disclose any criminal, drug-use, ethical or professional issues that could be problematic to obtaining a clearance or serving the president.”

A prospective staffer would be asked the same questions again by the security office and the FBI, he said.

Aside from Porter, two other high-ranking administration officials working on interim clearances have left in recent days.

George David Banks, who had served since February 2017 as special assistant to the president for international energy and environmental policy, resigned Tuesday. He told Politico that he was informed by the White House counsel’s office that his application for permanent clearance would not be granted, because of his past marijuana use.

David Sorensen, a speechwriter at the Council on Environmental Quality, a division of the Executive Office of the President, stepped down Friday. He did so after his former wife claimed that he was violent and emotionally abusive during their 2½ -year marriage. Sorensen has denied the allegations.

Chuck McCullough, a lawyer with Tully Rinckey who represents people whose security clearances are denied, said the standard is different from that in the criminal process.

“It would take less to deny him a security clearance than to charge him with a crime,” McCullough said, referring to Porter.

Asked how often the White House counsel’s office flagged problems mid-process, McCullough replied that “it happens a lot.”

Alice Crites and Philip Bump contributed to this report.