WASHINGTON — White House officials conceded Thursday that they regretted the way they handled accusations against Rob Porter, the staff secretary who resigned Wednesday after two former wives publicly accused him of abusing them. But they refused to provide any information about when President Donald Trump’s most senior advisers first learned about the episodes.
Porter abruptly departed the West Wing on Thursday afternoon, one day after John F. Kelly, the chief of staff, and other senior officials had issued statements defending him and said they would prefer that he remain in his post.
Among the questions he left behind was whether Kelly and other members of Trump’s inner circle had been willing to ignore accusations of domestic violence to protect a trusted aide. Raj Shah, the deputy White House press secretary, said Kelly had not been made “fully aware” of them until this week. But two people close to the White House said Kelly and Joe Hagin, the deputy chief of staff for operations, as well as Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, had known of the issues since late fall.
It was unclear whether they knew the extent of the women’s allegations, though one former senior official said White House officials had been aware in August that the issue was preventing Porter from obtaining the security clearance he was seeking. Shah said Porter had been operating with an “interim clearance,” which it is customary for top White House officials to receive while the FBI conducts a thorough check of their backgrounds.
During a briefing for reporters that was dominated by questions about Porter, Shah described the accusations against his former colleague as “unsettling” for the White House.
“I think it’s fair to say we all could have done better over the few hours or last few days in dealing with this situation,” Shah said.
Porter was seen as a crucial ally in bringing order and discipline to a White House full of political and policy novices, and as an even-tempered check on the volatile tendencies of the president and some of his other aides. The office of the staff secretary puts together the president’s briefing book every day, as well as memorandums for scheduled meetings.
The White House did not address on Thursday how Porter could have served in that role given that the top security clearance his job requires had been held up because the FBI had learned of the allegations by his former wives.
Jennifer Willoughby, his second wife, said in an interview that in September, Porter had told her that White House officials had informed him his security clearance “had not gone through.” She said he told her that “someone had told him that there was a violent allegation and that was what was holding it up.”
Both Willoughby and Colbie Holderness, Porter’s first wife, said Thursday that they had first been interviewed by FBI officials in January 2017, soon after Porter joined the Trump administration.
Holderness said Porter tried to work through an intermediary to discourage her from divulging his violent behavior. She said he had dispatched a mutual acquaintance last January to approach her husband, Skiffington Holderness.
According to an email Skiffington Holderness sent to the FBI, Porter’s friend had told him that it was “good” that Colbie Holderness was not initially thinking about speaking with the FBI.
“Rob isn’t lying; that women around town lie because they are ‘crazy’ and jealous,” Skiffington Holderness said the man told him, according to the email, which was obtained by The New York Times.
After their initial interviews with officials last January, both Willoughby and Colbie Holderness said they did not hear from the FBI agent who had handled their case again until September.
At that point, the agent emailed Willoughby for permission to access a restraining order she’d filed against Porter in 2010, writing, “in furtherance of the background investigation.” At Thursday’s news briefing, Shah said the investigation had continued since January 2017 until this week, when Porter left the White House.
The photographs that Shah said had “saddened” Trump and ultimately led White House officials to back away from Porter were in the FBI’s possession more than a year ago. In an email dated Jan. 27, 2017, Colbie Holderness sent the FBI agent who had interviewed her a set of four photographs that showed her with a black eye that she said Porter had given her. She followed with another email containing more photos of her swollen eye, which she said she suffered while the couple took a trip abroad.
Rob Cromwell, a former senior FBI agent who oversaw all background investigations for the bureau, including those at the White House, said it would be highly unusual for the agency not to have informed the White House of such allegations.
“A serious allegation like that? The FBI would notify the White House right away,” Cromwell said. “You’re having a person exposed to classified material, and that’s a risk. The customer is notified, and the customer, in this case, is the White House.”
When the accusations first surfaced, Kelly and others issued fulsome statements of support for their colleague. The White House spent most of Wednesday defending Porter even as he announced his resignation, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, saying the president and Kelly both had “full confidence in his abilities and his performance.”
It was only hours later on Wednesday night that Kelly issued a new statement saying he had been “shocked by the new allegations” against Porter.
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