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White House continues to struggle with domestic abuse vetting scandal

White House continues to struggle with domestic abuse vetting scandal
House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) announced Wednesday that the committee would investigate how the White House and FBI handled allegations of spousal abuse against former White House staff member Rob Porter. (Zach Gibson / Getty Images)

President Trump broke his silence on the subject of spousal abuse Wednesday, declaring publicly that he is "totally opposed to it" — but spoke out only as a scandal continued to fester over the White House handling of domestic violence allegations against a former top aide.

For more than a week, the administration has proved unable to convincingly answer questions about how officials failed to respond to accusations of physical abuse levied by two ex-wives against Rob Porter, who until last week served as a key White House official.

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On Wednesday, Congress entered the picture as Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) announced that his House Oversight Committee was launching an investigation to find out what and when the White House knew about the allegations. He vowed that he'd either get answers or "a really good reason" why there weren't any.

"I am interested in how someone with credible allegations of domestic abuse, plural, can be hired," Gowdy said.

He added that he had questions about the interim security clearance Porter had received, which allowed him to continue to work in the White House and handle highly classified material even after the FBI had indicated that he would be unlikely to receive a permanent clearance.

A congressional investigation could keep the controversy in public view for weeks or months, an unattractive prospect for the White House.

Within hours, the president, who had shunned reporters' questions all week, was talking, condemning all forms of violence within families.

"I am totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind," Trump said. "Everyone knows that, and it almost wouldn't even have to be said."

His choice to say it anyway indicated that Trump recognizes the harm the Porter case has done to his administration. Officials had wanted to spend this month claiming credit for the booming economy and pushing Trump's infrastructure plans.

Instead, the news has focused on whether his chief of staff, John F. Kelly, had known of the accusations against Porter and ignored them or had been negligent in not asking why Porter hadn't received a full security clearance.

Until Wednesday, Trump's only comments had been to lavish praise on Porter and question whether men accused of misconduct were being denied due process. Those remarks and tweets heightened outrage among women and many men across the country.

As day after day passed without the president personally expressing sympathy for victims of domestic violence, GOP strategists began to voice concern about the potential impact on this year's midterm election.

The handling of the Porter case raises particular problems for Trump because of his own history of having been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct.

On Wednesday, a porn actress known as Stormy Daniels, who received a $130,000 payment from Trump's personal lawyer, said she now felt free to talk about her history with Trump because the lawyer had publicly confirmed making the payment. The lawyer, Michael D. Cohen, said Tuesday that he had made the payment shortly before last year's election, but said the money did not come from the Trump Organization.

Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, has previously said she had an affair with Trump that began when his wife, Melania, was pregnant.

If Trump didn't see trouble coming, his fellow Republicans seemed to have sensed it. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said he considers it Gowdy's "proper job" to look into the Porter case.

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And Vice President Mike Pence told a reporter that the administration has "no tolerance for domestic violence, nor should any American."

In a rare break with administration practice, he expressed regret and suggested that feeling hadn't come upon him suddenly.

"I think the White House could have handled this better," Pence said. "I still feel that way."

Others in the White House admitted the same thing, though no officials have offered to spell out exactly what they think a better course of action might look like.

There were signs that the White House vetting process was suddenly tougher, but in an unexpected manner. George David Banks, an official at the White House's National Economic Council, announced he was stepping down. He said he was doing so after disclosing that he had used marijuana several years ago. Like many other employees in the White House, Banks was working on an interim security clearance while investigators examined his background.

Also on Wednesday, an inspector general's report said that Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin had improperly accepted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament and brought his wife on a European trip at taxpayer expense. Shulkin was an undersecretary in the Obama administration — which was proud of its vigorous vetting — for eighteen months before Trump took office.

One point of bewilderment for many in the political world has been how the White House let the Porter case spin out so wildly and for so long.

The controversy began more than a week ago with the first revelations that Porter's security clearance had been held up for months because of credible allegations of abuse by his two ex-wives. He resigned the day after the story became public, but Porter was barely out the door when news came that a second Trump aide, speechwriter David Sorenson, was also working without security clearance while the FBI looked into charges of domestic abuse.

In both cases, the women told their stories to investigators months ago. And in both cases, the men worked in the White House until the accusations were made public.

As those details came out, Trump did not express sympathy or sadness for the accusers, either in these cases or in general. Each day in the news briefing, reporters asked Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders why he wouldn't do so, and she answered that he had instructed her to convey his feelings.

The news cycle might have moved on by now if the White House had taken simple steps to deal with it, said Josh Earnest, the long-serving press secretary to President Obama.

"There could have been some expression of, 'Here's what we're going to do to make sure this doesn't happen again,'" Earnest said. "There would have to be a little bit more, but not a whole lot more, to contain the fallout."

Twitter: @cparsons

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