Donald Trump

White House investigated over alleged abuser Rob Porter after FBI deny claims they didn’t check his history

Conflicting accounts of who in the Trump administration knew about the allegations and when has spiralled into an oversight committee investigation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 February, 2018, 7:50pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 12:59am

The White House is under investigation over its employment of senior aide Rob Porter after allegations emerged that he abused his two ex-wives, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said on Wednesday morning.

Porter resigned as staff secretary last week, but Trump administration officials have been dogged by claims that they kept Porter on even after they were informed of the accusations, and argued with the FBI over whether he was properly vetted.

Representative Trey Gowdy (Republican, South Carolina), said on CNN’s New Day that his committee began an investigation on Tuesday night into Porter and what the White House may have known about the domestic abuse allegations against the senior aide.

“You can call it official, you can call it unofficial,” Gowdy said. “I’m going to direct questions to the FBI that I expect them to answer. And if they don’t answer them, then they’re going to need to give me a really good reason.”

The White House has struggled to contain a widening crisis over its handling of domestic violence allegations against Porter, who kept his position in the West Wing until last week, with access to highly classified documents, despite the serious accusations.

White House officials have publicly said they were first contacted in the summer by the FBI about Porter’s clearance.

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They maintain that they didn’t know all the details of the accusations against Porter and wanted to leave him in place because the investigation hadn’t been finished.

But FBI Director Christopher Wray has cast new doubt on the claims, saying the bureau completed its security check on Porter last summer.

Wray, a Trump appointee, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the bureau provided a partial report on Porter last March, submitted a completed investigation in late July, and sent requested follow-up information in November.

“We administratively closed the file in January, and then earlier this month we received some additional information, and we passed that along as well,” Wray said. He declined to give details on what the FBI reported.

Wray’s account is sure to add to the controversy over the decision by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and others on Trump’s staff to defend Porter after Britain’s Daily Mail first reported two ex-wives’ accounts a week ago.

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The issue of who in the White House knew when about the allegations has festered for a week, a longer lifespan than many Trump White House controversies. 

Porter, who worked closely with Kelly, was forced to resign last Wednesday after a picture surfaced of one of his ex-wives with a black eye.

Both women publicly have said they reported his physical abuse to the FBI early last year.

After reports of the alleged abuse became public, Kelly issued a statement praising Porter as a friend and confidant of “true integrity and honour”.

Typically, officials in sensitive positions are initially given interim security clearances while investigators seek out friends, ex-spouses and others for interviews.

But in the case of Porter, why such steps were not taken has proven difficult for the White House to explain.

In a news briefing hours after Wray’s sworn testimony, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was noticeably uncomfortable as she sought to shift responsibility to the White House personnel security office, which is staffed by career officials.

The office received the FBI’s reports but “had not made a final recommendation” by the time Porter resigned last week, Sanders said.

She stood by the White House’s earlier statements that Kelly had only recently learned of the nature of the charges, but kept an unusually public degree of distance between herself and the chief of staff.

“I can only give you the best information that I have, and that is my understanding,” she said.

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“Obviously, the press team’s not going to be as read-in, maybe, as some other elements at a given moment on a variety of topics,” she said at another point. “But we relay the best and most accurate information that we have.”

She would not say who allowed Porter to stay in his role for more than a year without permanent clearance or answer whether the personnel security office communicated with Kelly and other top officials as the FBI began reporting its findings.

Meanwhile, officials have not even agreed in recent days on whether they have handled the episode well. Deputy press secretary Raj Shah said publicly that the White House could have handled the situation better, while Kelly told The Wall Street Journal that “it was all done right”.

The issue is awkward for Trump, who famously boasted of sexually assaulting women on an “Access Hollywood” recording that was leaked before the 2016 election.

More than a dozen women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct during his years in business, allegations that he has denied.