Kelly and other senior White House officials heaped praise on staff secretary Rob Porter, one of the administration’s first hires, even after multiple news outlets published on-the-record accounts from his two ex-wives alleging that he had physically assaulted them.
The White House continued to defend Porter — who resigned on Wednesday — after pictures were published online showing one of his ex-wives with a black eye. She claims that Porter hit her while they were on their honeymoon.
Kelly issued a second statement late Wednesday night saying he was “shocked” by the new allegations but stood by his initial praise of Porter and insisted that he should have an opportunity to defend himself.
At Thursday’s press briefing, deputy press secretary Raj Shah acknowledged that the White House mishandled the situation, in part because many people there felt close to Porter and had a hard time believing he was capable of violent behavior.
Porter has denied that he physically assaulted the women, calling the allegations “vile” and “false” and a “smear campaign” against him.
But Trump’s allies are fuming at Kelly and the White House communications team — led by Hope HicksHope Charlotte HicksDuring 2016, White House spokesman called Trump ‘deplorable’ and ‘Access Hollywood’ tape ‘some justice:’ report The Hill’s 12:30 Report Former Trump legal spokesman to testify to Mueller about undisclosed call: report MORE, who is romantically involved with Porter — over how Porter’s exit was handled, fearing it ties the president to an alleged abuser.
And there are new questions about how Porter, whose job likely required him to review and pass along sensitive information directly to the president, received a security clearance after the FBI informed the White House of the allegations against him.
Democrats on Capitol Hill are demanding answers about the administration’s security clearance process, which is run through White House counsel Jim Carroll. Shah said that Kelly had not seen the pictures of the victims before this week but would not say who at the White House was previously aware of the allegations against Porter.
Current and former officials were baffled as to how Porter was allowed to work at the White House and rise to prominence under Kelly, noting that some of their colleagues had been denied jobs or forced out over lesser offenses, like past marijuana use.
“Kelly let his personal views get in the way of the president and it’s leading the news cycle now. This is unforgiveable,” said one White House adviser. “I had my differences with Kelly on policy and personnel but could never say he wasn’t doing a good job. Now? He needs to be fired. They either knew or should have known about Porter but they defended him even after the pictures were on the Internet. Kelly needs to go.”
Shah said Thursday that “the president has confidence in his staff.”
The Daily Mail first reported on the allegations against Porter and his romantic relationship with Hicks, the White House communications director.
Kelly and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders were quoted on the record in that story defending Porter.
Kelly called Porter “a man of true integrity and honor” and said he is proud to serve alongside him. Sanders called Porter “someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character.”
Porter informed the White House he would resign shortly before the press briefing on Wednesday, after The Intercept posted pictures of Porter’s ex-wife with a bruised face.
But Sanders continued to defend Porter from the lectern, saying he has been “effective in his role” and that the president and chief of staff “have had full confidence and trust in his abilities and his performance.”
Insiders told The Hill that Kelly and Hicks were closely involved in crafting the initial White House defense of Porter. Trump’s allies say the senior aides allowed their personal feelings for Porter to interfere with their primary responsibility of protecting the president.
“How is President TrumpDonald John TrumpTillerson: Russia already looking to interfere in 2018 midterms Dems pick up deep-red legislative seat in Missouri Speier on Trump’s desire for military parade: ‘We have a Napoleon in the making’ MORE served by going out of your way to defend this guy? How is President Trump helped by this?” asked a GOP operative with close ties to the White House. “General Kelly put his personal friendship with Porter ahead of what’s best for the president and the White House as a whole. He’s taken this controversy and plopped it right on the president’s desk and now President Trump is facing the firing squad over it.”
“Kelly was supposed to be the dispassionate enforcer who stopped the infighting and made sure the trains ran on time,” the operative continued. “But in this case all he’s done is tie President Trump down to the tracks and let a train come directly for him at 100 miles per hour.”
The White House said that the initial defense of Porter had been crafted by “a number of senior officials” but that Hicks had recused herself from “some matters.”
Shah also acknowledged Thursday that many people at the White House were close with Porter and the instinct to defend him was driven by a difficulty to believe the allegations against him.
Shah said that the president was “surprised, disheartened and saddened” by the developments and that “like many of us, he did not see that in Rob Porter.”
Beyond the White House’s defense of him, there are questions about Porter’s security clearance, given the amount of classified information that moves through the White House.
Shah said that Porter — who has been at the White House for more than a year — was still operating on an interim security clearance because his background check had not been completed. He said Porter’s security clearance application was still being reviewed because Porter has denied the charges against him and investigators must weigh both the allegations and the denial.
“During his time at the White House, Rob received no waivers and no special treatment and this is the tried and true process,” Shah said. “It was followed meticulously.”
All potential White House employees fill out an exhaustive application called a SF 86 security clearance form detailing their past behavior, activities and personal contacts. The FBI conducts a background check and would have notified the White House about the allegations made against Porter after interviewing his former wives.
Kelly is well versed on the security clearances process, having reportedly pulled a security clearance for former White House aide Sebastian GorkaSebastian Lukacs GorkaCNBC analyst: Trump immigration proposals feel like ‘ethnic cleansing’ Former Ohio football star faces conservative rival in GOP primary fight Gorka, Crowley: Trump speech ‘pitch perfect,’ ‘all the right notes’ MORE before firing him. Early in the administration, several aides were escorted off White House grounds after their FBI background checks turned up red flags.
For Kelly, it was the second controversy in two days, as he continues to deal with blowback over making disparaging remarks about immigrants.
“This was clearly a blind spot for Kelly and it makes you question his judgment because we should be talking about tax reform right now,” said a Trump transition adviser. “He’s had a rough few days.”
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