- By Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Maggie Haberman The New York Times
One week after Rob Porter, his staff secretary, resigned amid spousal abuse allegations, President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he was “totally opposed to domestic violence,” his first condemnation of the alleged conduct behind a scandal that has engulfed the White House.
His statement, which members of both parties had said was long overdue, came as John F. Kelly, Trump’s chief of staff, faced new questions about his handling of Porter’s case, including how Porter could have held a temporary high-level security clearance for more than a year in light of the allegations.
Kelly told senior aides last fall to put an immediate end to granting new interim security clearances like the one given to Porter and directed them to resolve any issues preventing employees who then held them from receiving a full clearance, according to two people familiar with the discussion.
At the meeting in the West Wing, Kelly said he was assigning his deputy at the time, Kirstjen Nielsen, with enforcing the new policy, the people said. But it is not known whether Kelly, Nielsen or any other senior officials sought to delve into why Porter was operating with an interim clearance and had not received full clearance.
Porter resigned last week after allegations that he had abused his two ex-wives were reported by The Daily Mail. On Wednesday, during a tax event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Trump broke his silence on the issue of spousal abuse, saying: “I’m totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind. Everyone knows that, and it almost wouldn’t even have to be said.”
The FBI learned about the allegations from the two women soon after Trump was inaugurated. But spokespeople for the White House have insisted that no senior White House officials knew of the spousal abuse allegations against Porter until last week. They have said the career government employees at the White House personnel security office who processed the clearances did not tell them about the allegations uncovered by the FBI.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Wednesday that he was beginning an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Porter’s security clearance, while six Democratic senators said they were concerned about whether there had been “any mishandling of classified information” because of them. They asked Christopher A. Wray, the FBI director, for the names of other employees at the White House who were working “without being able to obtain a permanent security clearance.”
Gowdy, who sent letters to the FBI and Kelly seeking information Wednesday, said in an interview that he would examine the executive branch process of granting of interim security clearances generally and Porter’s case specifically.
“I am interested in how someone with credible allegations of domestic abuse, plural, can be hired,” he said. Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, called domestic abuse “a particularly insidious crime” that bears serious consideration in both the hiring and clearance process. He also said he had questions about an interim clearance process that “necessarily is not and almost by definition cannot be as fulsome as a full background check.”
He added that he was also interested “in what the FBI learned and, perhaps connected with that but also perhaps separately from that, who at the White House knew what, when did they know it and what, if anything, was done about it.”
Even as Kelly’s past efforts to deal with security clearance issues at the White House were becoming clearer, his shifting public responses to the revelations of Porter’s past were coming under further scrutiny.
Three people briefed on the situation said that when Kelly learned that the accusations would be published in The Daily Mail on Feb. 6, he was returning from a visit to Capitol Hill and spoke by phone to White House aides. Everyone on the call agreed that Porter would have to resign, the people briefed on the situation said, and a statement from Kelly was drafted to provide to The Daily Mail.
But Porter continued to deny the statements from his ex-wives. One aide in the discussions pushed back on the belief that Porter should resign, saying that these were mere allegations, and that if Porter had to resign over an allegation, other people could be forced from their posts any time an allegation was made. Other aides agreed, and argued for waiting for the story to play out.
At that point, they reached Kelly again, the people said, and he expressed agreement, telling them to make his statement about Porter more supportive. That night, The Daily Mail published Kelly’s statement calling Porter “a man of true integrity and honor,” and someone with whom he was “proud to serve.”
Soon after the story appeared, Kelly heard from someone with more detailed knowledge of the claims about Porter that more damning information was about to come out, and that the chief of staff should not put himself in the middle of the allegations. The people briefed on the discussions would not identify that person.
The conversation prompted Kelly to go back to Porter, this time telling him that he “knows what he has to do,” according to those briefed on the discussion.
Porter agreed to resign, and then told his staff that he was stepping down. But the next morning, on Feb. 7, he told White House aides he wanted to leave on his own terms and help with the transition. Kelly agreed to the plan, those briefed said.
The scandal has placed Kelly’s job in jeopardy, leading Trump to complain privately about him and sound out confidants about potential replacements, including Gary D. Cohn, the director of his National Economic Council, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., the majority leader.
Trump is said to seem more favorable toward McCarthy in some of his discussions, seeing him as someone who would be a more willing subordinate than Cohn might be, according to a person with direct knowledge of the discussions. Yet in other conversations, Trump has indicated that Cohn is his pick.
Several of Trump’s advisers believe the president, who has a long history of quizzing aides about one another behind their backs without taking action, might just be venting. And his interactions with Kelly have remained mostly positive, according to two West Wing advisers who have witnessed them together.