WASHINGTON — The Trump White House plunged into chaos mode Wednesday as key staff struggled to keep their stories straight about a top aide accused of physically abusing two ex-wives.
It was as if the White House had leaped back in time to the first months of 2017, when finger pointing, anonymous leaks and guessing games about whether key aides were on their way out were near routine.
The story unfolded on Feb. 6, when the Daily Mail reported that two ex-wives had accused White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter of physical and emotional abuse. A story the next day included a photo of Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, with a black eye that she attributed to her then-husband.
Porter, who resigned last week, has denied the allegations.
Holderness and Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, who took out a restraining order against him in 2010, told reporters they had informed the FBI of their abuse allegations during security checks conducted in January 2017. That raised an important question: How did Porter get the security clearance needed to serve as the trusted information gatekeeper to President Donald Trump and Chief of Staff John Kelly?
Interim security clearance
It soon became clear that Porter had worked for more than a year under an interim security clearance, even after the FBI informed White House brass about the accusations against Porter.
FBI Director Christopher Wray testified Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee that the agency had submitted a partial report on the investigation into Porter to the White House in March and delivered the completed background investigation in late July.
That contradicted White House press secretary Sarah Sanders’ assertion Monday that the White House learned “the extent of the situation involving Rob Porter” on Feb. 6 — the day of the initial Daily Mail report — and that Porter’s security investigation hadn’t been completed.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., highlighted the disconnect early Wednesday, telling CNN that the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is investigating “how in hell (Porter) was still employed.”
Porter, 40, had been considered one of the shining lights on the White House staff. As a one-time Rhodes Scholar and graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law, the son of a former aide to President George H.W. Bush, and a former aide to three Republican U.S. senators, he came to his post with impeccable credentials.
He also had been dating White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, according to multiple accounts.
Resignation, but no resolution
The White House’s first-blush reaction to the charges leveled by Holderness and Willoughby was to defend Porter. Sanders issued a statement in which she said Porter is “someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character.”
But on Feb. 7, after the Daily Mail ran the photo of a bruised Holderness, Porter tendered his resignation. The same day, Sanders released a statement that read, “Rob Porter has been effective in his role as staff secretary. The president and chief of staff have full confidence in his abilities and his performance.”
The episode tarnished Kelly’s reputation as the cool head in a hot spot who brought discipline to the Oval Office after Trump fired his first chief of staff, Reince Priebus.
On Tuesday, Kelly was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying the response to the allegations against Porter “was all done right.” Those remarks came days after deputy press secretary Raj Shah had told reporters that the White House could have handled the Porter story better.
Anonymously sourced stories began to surface soon after the story broke that Trump was considering replacing Kelly with chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy or budget chief Mick Mulvaney.
When reporters asked Trump about his former aide, the president wished Porter well, praised his performance in the West Wing and repeated Porter’s claim of innocence. “And hopefully he will have a great career ahead of him,” Trump said. “But it was very sad when we heard about it.”
Twitter erupted with outrage at Trump’s failure to offer any words or sympathy for Porter’s exes.
Sanders later explained Trump’s fond wishes for Porter: “The president wants success for all Americans.”
Trump weighed in against spousal abuse when he responded to shouted questions from reporters. “I am totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind. Everyone knows that, and it almost wouldn’t even have to be said,” he said.
Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence,in South Korea for the Winter Olympics last week, told NBC News he was appalled when he learned of the allegations against Porter, adding, “There is no place in America for domestic abuse.”
Citing Shah’s admission, Pence added, “That being said, I think the White House has acknowledged that they could have handled it better.”