The day after a White House aide resigned following allegations of domestic violence, the administration deflected questions about what the aide’s boss, Chief of Staff John Kelly, knew and when he knew it.
White House spokesperson Raj Shah refused to answer directly when Kelly learned of the allegations against staff secretary Rob Porter prior to reports beginning Tuesday night that featured Porter’s ex-wives claiming he physically abused them. The women were interviewed by the FBI as part of Porter's background check for a security clearance. Shah said he wouldn't comment on the specifics of the background-check process and that Porter had been working with an interim security clearance.
Though Kelly and White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Porter’s reputation in a Daily Mail story published late Tuesday, Shah said that once Kelly saw the photos of Porter’s previous wife’s battered face, Kelly’s position changed.
Shah said that the allegations made against Porter are “serious and disturbing,” adding that they "involve incidents long before he joined the White House” and that Porter had denied wrongdoing. Kelly, he said, had only become “fully aware” of the allegations yesterday.
Porter resigned on Wednesday following public allegations of emotional and physical abuse by his former wives in the previous 24 hours.
First, The Daily Mail published an article Tuesday night with Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, saying that she was nervous around him due to his explosive anger and that he had pulled her out of the shower by the shoulders and yelled at her. Additionally, his first wife, Colbie Holderness, called him emotionally and physically abusive. In the article, Kelly defended Porter saying he “is a man of true integrity and honor, and I can't say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”
“I have worked directly with Rob Porter nearly every day for the last year and the person I know is someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character,” Sanders added.
On Wednesday, the Intercept published its own article about the allegations with a graphic photo from Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, showing her with a black eye. Holderness claims Porter threw her down on a bed and punched her in the face during a vacation in Italy in 2005. Both stories reported the women told the FBI of the alleged abuse during the screening process for a security clearance last year.
Porter has denied any wrongdoing but announced his resignation on Wednesday, after internal debates about how and whether to keep him.
Wednesday evening, CNN reported that senior aides in the White House were aware for months about the allegations against Porter, including Kelly. Despite his initial defense of Porter, Kelly issued another statement on Wednesday night saying he was dismayed about the allegations.
"I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter,” Kelly said. “There is no place for domestic violence in our society. 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. I accepted his resignation earlier today, and will ensure a swift and orderly transition."
Shah acknowledged on Thursday that everyone had not handled the situation as well as they could have.
“I think it’s fair to say that we all could have done better over the last few hours, last few days, dealing with the situation,” Shah said.
He attributed the initial defenses of Porter to the fact that they simply did not know what he had been accused of.
“This was a Rob Porter that I and many others have dealt with. That Sarah (Huckabee Sanders) had dealt with, that other officials including the Chief of Staff had dealt with. And the emerging reports were not reflective of the individual that we had come to know,” Shah said.
Kelly’s initial defense, and reported prior knowledge of the allegations against Porter, have led to some calls for him to resign his position.
Jon Tester (D-MT), who is up for reelection in a state President Trump won handily this year, told CNN this morning that if Kelly knew about the allegations against Porter, he needs to be held accountable.
"He better have a really good reason. Otherwise, he's gone, too,” Tester said.