The director of the FBI cast new doubt on the White House’s version of when officials learned of a key aide’s history of domestic violence allegations, saying Tuesday that the bureau completed its security check on Rob Porter, President Trump’s staff secretary, last summer.
The issue of who in the White House knew when about the allegations has festered for a week, a longer lifespan than many Trump White House controversies. Officials have offered conflicting timelines and failed to fully explain how Porter kept his position in the West Wing until last week, with access to highly classified documents, despite the serious accusations.
The furor has rekindled questions about the competence of the White House staff and the president’s willingness to disbelieve accusations by women of abuse at the hands of powerful men. It has also left White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly increasingly isolated.
White House officials have maintained they didn’t know all the details of the accusations against Porter and wanted to leave him in place because the investigation hadn’t been finished.
But FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, a Trump appointee, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the bureau provided a partial report on Porter last March, submitted a completed investigation in late July, and sent requested followup information in November.
“We administratively closed the file in January, and then earlier this month we received some additional information, and we passed that along as well,” Wray said. He declined to give details on what the FBI reported.
Wray’s account is sure to add to the controversy over the decision by Kelly and others on Trump’s staff to defend Porter after Britain’s Daily Mail first reported two ex-wives’ accounts a week ago.
Porter, who worked closely with Kelly, was forced to resign last Wednesday after a picture surfaced of one of his ex-wives with a black eye. Both women publicly have said they reported his physical abuse to the FBI early last year.
After reports of the alleged abuse became public, Kelly issued a statement praising Porter as a friend and confidant of “true integrity and honor.”
White House officials have said they handled Porter’s case in accordance with longstanding procedures. Officials of previous administrations have disputed that.
“I see a lot of people here dropping the ball,” said Leon E. Panetta, whose numerous White House positions included chief of staff for President Clinton and CIA director for President Obama.
Panetta said intelligence officials briefing top staffers should have raised more questions about why Porter and other high-level officials with access to secret information worked for such a long time with only interim security clearances. He said Kelly and Don McGahn, the White House counsel, either failed to “jump up and down” to resolve the issue quickly, or they knew about the FBI’s findings and deliberately let Porter’s case linger.
“It’s one of those two. Neither of which, frankly, says very much good about how this was handled,” Panetta said.
Typically, officials in sensitive positions are initially given interim security clearances while investigators seek out friends, ex-spouses and others for interviews. Like a number of White House officials — including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and key advisor — Porter never received a permanent clearance.
The Porter case is unusual, said Andrew P. Bakaj, a lawyer who represents clients in security clearance investigations, because such serious allegations often result in immediate suspension of an employee’s clearance. Agencies worry that someone in a sensitive position could be vulnerable to blackmail, he said.
“I would expect them to pull that interim clearance and say we need to come to grips with this and figure out what’s going on,” Bakaj said. “There’s a question about his potential criminal conduct and his personal conduct. It goes to the heart of his trust, reliability, good judgment and his ability to safeguard classified information.”
Why such steps were not taken in Porter’s case has proven difficult for the White House to explain.
In a news briefing hours after Wray’s sworn testimony, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was noticeably uncomfortable as she sought to shift responsibility to the White House personnel security office, which is staffed by career officials. The office received the FBI’s reports but “had not made a final recommendation” by the time Porter resigned last week, Sanders said.
Sanders stood by the White House’s earlier statements that Kelly had only recently learned of the nature of the charges, but kept an unusually public degree of distance between herself and the chief of staff.
“I can only give you the best information that I have, and that's my understanding,” she told reporters.
“Obviously, the press team's not going to be as read-in, maybe, as some other elements at a given moment on a variety of topics,” she said at another point. “But we relay the best and most accurate information that we have.”
She would not say who allowed Porter to stay in his role for more than a year without permanent clearance or answer whether the personnel security office communicated with Kelly and other top officials as the FBI began reporting its findings.
“I can't say definitively, but I'm not aware of any communication,” she said.
Last week, the White House offered an account which differed from the sequence of events described Tuesday.
Raj Shah, White House deputy press secretary, said no one had made a decision on Porter’s clearance because the White House was still waiting for the investigation to be finished.
“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.”
“He was operating on an interim security clearance. His clearance was never denied, and he resigned," Shah said.
Officials have not even agreed in recent days on whether they have handled the episode well. Shah said publicly that the White House could have handled the situation better, while Kelly told the Wall Street Journal that “it was all done right.”
The president has sent mixed signals, privately indicating his unhappiness with Kelly but publicly hitting back in a weekend tweet that expressed sympathy for men accused of abuse, not for the women reporting it.
“Peoples’ lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation,” Trump tweeted Saturday. “Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused – life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?”
The issue is awkward for Trump, who famously boasted of sexually assaulting women on an “Access Hollywood” recording that was leaked before the 2016 election. More than a dozen women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct during his years in business, allegations that he has denied.
Wray also appeared to challenge another Trump claim during his testimony.
Trump tweeted last week that a controversial memo issued by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee “totally vindicates” him in the Russia investigation. But Wray repeated the FBI judgment that memo was inaccurate because it left out important facts.
He also took exception to Trump’s repeated Twitter attacks on the FBI as politically biased and “in tatters.” The FBI rank and file are “the finest group of professionals and public servants I could hope to work for,” he said, adding that he tells them to let their work speak for itself.
“I encourage our folks not to get too hung up on what I regard as the noise on TV and social media,” he said.