WASHINGTON – White House officials refused to explain Thursday why Chief of Staff John Kelly and others allowed Rob Porter to stay in his high-profile job even after his security clearance was held up over allegations of domestic abuse by two ex-wives.
“His background investigation was ongoing,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said of Porter, the former White House staff secretary. “His (security) clearance was never denied, and he resigned.”
Shah called the allegations that Porter abused two ex-wives “serious and disturbing” but maintained that Kelly and President Trump were not fully apprised of the “full nature” of the accusations – including pictures of a woman’s black eye – until Wednesday.
Shah would not detail when Kelly and others first learned of the allegations in general in which ex-wives Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby accused Porter of physical and emotional abuse.
Shah told reporters the alleged abuse took place long before Porter’s time in the White House, and therefore would have been investigated during the initial part of the background check process.
Porter, meanwhile, was operating on an interim security clearance. “We trust the background check process,” Shah told reporters.
While aides initially said Porter would stay on temporarily for the transition to a new staff secretary, he exited the building on Thursday.
Kelly issued a supportive statement at the time Porter announced his resignation on Wednesday, calling him “a man of true integrity and honor,” and “I am proud to serve alongside him.”
Hours later, after pictures surfaced showing one of the ex-wives with a black eye, Kelly issued a more critical statement saying he “was shocked” by “the new allegations released today” against Porter.
“There is no place for domestic violence in our society,” Kelly said in his follow-up statement. “I stand by my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming Chief of Staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation.”
In a statement put out by the White House, Porter said “these outrageous allegations are simply false.”
Porter acknowledged taking a 15-year-old photos showing one ex-wife with a black eye, but “the reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described.” He did not explain how.
“I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign,” Porter said.
Vice President Pence, traveling in Japan en route to the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in South Korea, declined to discuss the Porter predicament. We’ll comment on any issues affecting White House staff when we get back to Washington,” Pence told reporters.
While the staff secretary position that Porter held is usually seen as administrative — controlling the flow of paperwork to the president’s desk – they also play an important policy role by coordinating with other top aides on recommendations to the president.
After Kelly took over as chief of staff in late July, he tapped Porter to help him re-organize the presidential office, aides said. Porter frequently traveled aboard Air Force with Trump, become a highly influential though low-key aide.
Aides credited Porter as one of the chief architects of Trump’s State of the Union address last week, helping to decide which legislative proposals did or didn’t make it into the speech.
Porter was one of 22 top-tier assistants to the president making the maximum salary of $179,700 last year.
Like all White House jobs, the job requires a security clearance. Porter had been operating on a temporary clearance.
Unlike military and national security officials at the White House, who have a security clearance from the Defense Department or intelligence community, civilian officials receive their security clearances from the White House itself. The Office of Security, a component of the Executive Office of the President, makes the final determination on security clearances based on background investigations conducted by the FBI.
Those investigations aren’t intended as a moral character test, but rather try to determine whether a government official handling state secrets might be susceptible to blackmail or bribery.
Porter’s first wife, Colbee Holderness, said she told the FBI that she believed Porter could be blackmailed, according to the Washington Post.
A Harvard graduate and Rhodes scholar, Porter came recommended to the White House on the strength of a resume that included stints with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and his two home-state senators, Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch of Utah, also Republicans. His father, Roger Porter, was an economic adviser to President George H.W. Bush and now teaches at Harvard, where he’s a top scholar on presidential decision-making.
Porter also had some early missteps. Trump’s first executive order instituting a travel ban a year ago wasn’t thoroughly vetted with the Department of Homeland Security before the president signed it, leading to widespread confusion when it was implemented. A USA TODAY report last February found that five executive orders the staff secretary sent to the Federal Register for official publication were different from those released to the press – leading to a rare correction of the record.
Staff secretaries are usually low-profile and obscure, but some of them – David Gergen under Reagan, John Podesta under Clinton and Harriet Miers under George H.W. Bush – went on to higher-profile jobs. Porter was unusually visible – in part because of his role in Trump’s frequent signing-ceremony photo opportunities.
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