Top Trump Aides Are Said to Have Long Known About Abuse Accusations

Rob Porter on Monday at Joint Base Andrews. He resigned from the White House on Wednesday.

WASHINGTON — White House officials conceded Thursday that they regretted the way they handled accusations against Rob Porter, the staff secretary who resigned Wednesday after two former wives publicly accused him of abusing them. But they refused to provide any information about when President Trump’s most senior advisers first learned about the episodes.

Mr. Porter abruptly departed the West Wing on Thursday afternoon, one day after John F. Kelly, the chief of staff, and other senior officials had issued statements defending him and said they would prefer that he remain in his post.

Among the questions he left behind was whether Mr. Kelly and other members of Mr. Trump’s inner circle had been willing to ignore accusations of domestic violence to protect a trusted aide. Raj Shah, the deputy White House press secretary, said that Mr. Kelly had not been made “fully aware” of them until this week. But two people close to the White House said that Mr. Kelly and Joe Hagin, the deputy chief of staff for operations, as well as Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, had known of the issues since late fall.

It was unclear whether they knew the extent of the women’s allegations, though one former senior American official said that White House officials had been aware in August that the issue was preventing Mr. Porter from obtaining the security clearance he was seeking. Mr. Shah said that Mr. Porter had been operating with an “interim clearance,” which is customary for top White House officials to receive while the F.B.I. conducts a thorough check of their backgrounds.

During a briefing for reporters that was dominated by questions about Mr. Porter, Mr. Shah described the accusations against his former colleague as “unsettling” for the White House.

“I think it’s fair to say we all could have done better over the few hours or last few days in dealing with this situation,” Mr. Shah said.

Mr. Porter was seen as a crucial ally in bringing order and discipline to a White House full of political and policy novices, and as an even-tempered check on the volatile tendencies of the president and some of his other aides. The office of the staff secretary puts together the president’s briefing book every day, as well as memorandums for scheduled meetings.

During the Obama administration, the president would also receive a set of briefing and decisional memos most nights.

“This required our team to review highly classified material for the president on a daily basis,” said Joani Walsh, who served as President Barack Obama’s staff secretary. Like others in the office, Ms. Walsh had a clearance that allowed her to see top-secret and sensitive compartmentalized information, usually called “T.S./S.C.I. clearance.” Officials who hold the post also typically have code-word clearance to handle the country’s most closely guarded secrets.

The White House did not address on Thursday how Mr. Porter could have served in that role given that the top security clearance his job requires had been held up because the F.B.I. had learned of the allegations by his former wives.

Jennifer Willoughby, his second wife, said in an interview that in September, Mr. Porter had told her that White House officials had informed him that his security clearance “had not gone through.” She said he told her that “someone had told him that there was a violent allegation and that was what was holding it up.”

Both Ms. Willoughby and Colbie Holderness, Mr. Porter’s first wife, said on Thursday that they had first been interviewed by F.B.I. officials last January, soon after Mr. Porter joined the Trump administration.



John Kelly: From Order to Disorder?

John F. Kelly was brought in to restore order to a chaotic West Wing. But recently the White House chief of staff has been finding himself at the center of controversy.

“Gen. John Kelly has been moving fast ...” “He is a terrific leader.” “... to impose military-style discipline on the Trump White House.” “Thanks a lot, um ...” White House chief of staff John Kelly was once seen as the man who could restore order in the West Wing. “Well, I think he’s the right guy to be able to try to get the White House back in order.” Now he’s at the center of disorder after a top White House aide resigned over allegations of domestic abuse. “One of the president’s most trusted advisers announced he’s resigning ...” “Following accusations of domestic abuse from two former wives.” “He says he choked her and would throw her on the bed, put his body weight on her, yell and grind his elbow or knee into her body.” Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary, denied the allegations. And his ally, Kelly, initially supported him. “Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor, and I can’t say enough good things about him. I am proud to serve alongside him.” But that view quickly changed. “I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There’s no place for domestic violence in our society.” His initial defense of Porter sparked an outcry. And it’s not the first time this week that the retired Marine general found himself in hot water. As Congress debated tying a spending bill to immigration legislation, Kelly criticized eligible immigrants who hadn’t signed up for DACA. “The difference between 690 and 1.8 million were the people that some would say were too afraid to sign up. Others would say were too lazy to get off their asses. But they didn’t sign up.” And he also irritated his boss. In January, Kelly reportedly angered the president for saying this: “You know, there’s been an evolutionary process that this president has gone through. As a campaign — and I pointed out to all of the members that were in the room — that they all say things during the course of campaigns that may or may not be fully informed.” Trump responded on Twitter. “The president tried to kill the theory of evolution in tweets this morning, saying, ‘The wall is the wall, has never changed or evolved from the first day I conceived of it.’ ” And while Kelly is said to have brought some greater discipline to the West Wing, he has also shown that he isn’t afraid to be at the center of the controversy.

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John F. Kelly was brought in to restore order to a chaotic West Wing. But recently the White House chief of staff has been finding himself at the center of controversy.CreditCredit...Eric Thayer for The New York Times

Ms. Holderness said Mr. Porter tried to work through an intermediary to discourage her from divulging his violent behavior. She said he had dispatched a mutual acquaintance last January to approach her husband, Skiffington Holderness.

According to an email Mr. Holderness sent to the F.B.I., Mr. Porter’s friend had told him that it was “good” that Ms. Holderness was not initially thinking about speaking with the F.B.I.

“Rob isn’t lying; that women around town lie because they are ‘crazy’ and jealous,” Mr. Holderness said the man told him, according to the email, which was obtained by The New York Times.

After their initial interviews with officials last January, both Ms. Willoughby and Ms. Holderness said that they did not hear from the F.B.I. agent who had handled their case again until September.

At that point, the agent emailed Ms. Willoughby for permission to gain access to a restraining order she had filed against Mr. Porter in 2010, writing, “in furtherance of the background investigation.” At Thursday’s news briefing, Mr. Shah said the investigation had continued since January 2017 until this week, when Mr. Porter left the White House.

The photographs that Mr. Shah said had “saddened” Mr. Trump and ultimately led White House officials to back away from Mr. Porter were in the F.B.I.’s possession over a year ago. In an email dated Jan. 27, 2017, Ms. Holderness sent the F.B.I. agent who had interviewed her a set of four photographs that showed her with a black eye that she said Mr. Porter had given her. She followed with another email containing more photos of her swollen eye, which she said she suffered while the couple took a trip abroad.

Mr. Porter told his colleagues on Tuesday night that he had called one of his former wives an expletive on their honeymoon, but he insisted that he was not physical. The bruised eye that one wife had on another trip, he told colleagues, came not from his hand but after he tried to keep her from throwing a piece of Italian glass to the ground, and she fell and hurt herself.

Rob Cromwell, a former senior F.B.I. agent who oversaw all background investigations for the bureau, including those at the White House, said it would be highly unusual for the agency not to have informed the White House of such allegations.

“A serious allegation like that? The F.B.I. would notify the White House right away,” Mr. Cromwell said. “You’re having a person exposed to classified material, and that’s a risk. The customer is notified, and the customer, in this case, is the White House.”

Mr. Porter would also have been required to disclose the accusations on the standard form, known as the SF-86, that government employees are required to complete to serve in a national security position. The form asks about specific arrests, charges, convictions and protective orders currently in effect, then makes an open-ended request for the applicant to disclose any “public record civil court action” in which they have been involved in the past 10 years. If the F.B.I. becomes aware that someone has lied on the form or omitted responsive information, it can be disqualifying.

Even as Mr. Porter’s former wives publicly pressed their accusations against him, Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, whom he has been dating, met with other White House officials in drafting the initial statements sent in Mr. Porter’s defense, according to two West Wing officials.

When the accusations first surfaced, Mr. Kelly and others issued fulsome statements of support for their colleague. The White House spent most of Wednesday defending Mr. Porter even as he announced his resignation, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, saying the president and Mr. Kelly both had “full confidence in his abilities and his performance.”

It was only hours later on Wednesday night that Mr. Kelly issued a new statement saying he had been “shocked by the new allegations” against Mr. Porter.

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