WASHINGTON — During Tuesday’s press briefing, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders attempted to explain the apparent contradictions between FBI Director Christopher Wray’s testimony before Congress earlier the same day and the West Wing’s evolving public account of the handling of domestic abuse violations against former staff secretary Rob Porter.
At issue is Wray’s assertion that the FBI had completed its background check on Porter in late July and sent its findings to the White House. Previously, the White House had claimed that a background investigation into Porter was ongoing when allegations of spousal abuse against him surfaced last week in the media, and that it had received no information from the FBI that would disqualify him for a security clearance.
But a source familiar with how the White House personnel process was handled in prior administrations told Yahoo News that Sanders’s story “doesn’t add up.”
“It would be highly irregular for something like this to happen,” said the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation and the limited number of people familiar with the process.
Last week, two of Porter’s ex-wives went public with allegations he verbally and physically abused them. Porter, who has vehemently denied the accusations, resigned from his position on Feb. 7. His position was one of the most sensitive in the White House and essentially involved being a key gatekeeper for documents for the Oval Office.
Both of Porter’s former wives said they told the FBI about their experiences as part of the background check procedures for his position. This raised questions about when exactly the White House first found out about the accusations against Porter and how, absent a security clearance, he was allowed to work in a high-level position that involved handling classified information.
In press briefings in recent days, Sanders and her deputy, Raj Shah, said Porter had an interim security clearance and that his background check process was “ongoing.” They also insisted no one in the White House was aware of the allegations against him, which could have disqualified him for a clearance.
Wray, who was handpicked to lead the FBI by Trump, seemed to directly contradict the White House’s explanations in testimony on Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Wray said the FBI completed Porter’s background check late last July and sent a report to the White House. That was one of three instances where Wray said the bureau gave the White House information on Porter. In addition to the completed background check, Wray also claimed the FBI issued a partial report on Porter in March at passed on additional information about him in November after the White House requested a follow up inquiry.
At the daily briefing on Tuesday, Sanders was asked by reporters how Wray’s testimony that Porter’s background check was complete squared with her prior claim the procedure was ongoing. Sanders said “both” were true because the FBI passed along its reports to the White House Personnel Security Office, which still “had not finished” its own review.
“The White House Personnel Office staffed by career officials received information last year and what they considered to be the final background investigation report in November, but they had not made a final recommendation for adjudication to the White House because the process was still ongoing when Rob Porter resigned,” Sanders said.
According to Sanders, the Personnel Security Office believed the report submitted by the FBI “required significant additional investigatory field work.”
The source familiar with White House personnel procedures told Yahoo News that it’s possible the personnel office received the report from the FBI and decided to “keep kicking the decision down the road.” However, they said this would be unlikely and “pretty reckless” for them to receive that information without notifying White House staff close to the president because Porter’s problems could have compromised him as a “source of extortion.”
“Even if Mr. Porter denied everything, it’s still a vulnerability to the president,” the source said.
At the briefing, Sanders declined to address questions about how the White House’s prior claims that top officials only discovered the allegations against Porter when they were reported in the press. The source who spoke to Yahoo News said it would be extremely unusual if no one at the White House was aware of issues with Porter after the FBI completed its report.
“Someone in the White House would have had to have known,” the source said. “The White House personnel office is the White House. They’re saying the left hand didn’t talk to the right hand.”
It would be especially odd, the source went on to say, if the chief of staff and White House counsel had not been informed at all about the allegations against Porter. They explained that these top White House officials would likely be regularly inquiring why someone in a sensitive role was still using an interim security clearance. While staffers have interim clearances in the early days of an administration, the source said that while the process of obtaining one is thorough, it’s usually completed quickly due to the importance of security issues.
The source also claimed that, in past administrations, the counsel would have been involved in the hiring of a staff secretary throughout the process, including sitting in on interviews. They said the White House counsel’s office typically communicates with the personnel office throughout the hiring process on the “handful of senior staff positions.”
“There is an individual in the White House counsel’s office who has the function of being clearance counsel. That’s all they do,” the source said.
While the clearance counsel is typically more focused on political appointees outside the White House, the office usually engages in the vetting of candidates for senior West Wing staff, the source said. They stressed that it would be “highly irregular” that neither the FBI or the personnel office would have notified the counsel about a “flag” in Porter’s file that could have been “existential” to his ability to get a clearance.
“The whole thing is a little bit crazy,” the source said. “And by the way, crazy can happen, I guess, but that is a tough narrative to hold on to.”
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