When Britain's Daily Mail first published the allegations that then-White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter had been physically and verbally abusive to his two ex-wives, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), whom Porter worked for as chief of staff, was quoted as saying "it's incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man." A day later, after Porter resigned — reportedly against Hatch's urging — Hatch said he was "heartbroken" by the allegations and said "domestic violence in any form is abhorrent." Now, Hatch has sent letters of apology to the two wives, Jennie Willoughby and Colbie Holderness, CNN reported Sunday.
"It was a sincere apology for pain he may have caused us," Willoughby told CNN. In his letter, Hatch explained that he "was unaware of the nature of the article and was under the impression political enemies were mounting an attack against Rob, which is why he released the first statement to the White House," she said, and he "reiterated his explanation as to why his statement changed." Holderness said simply, "I appreciate his apology." Peter Weber
The question of who knew what about former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter's alleged abuse of his two ex-wives, and when they knew it, continues to dog the White House more than a week after Porter resigned. The FBI, which says it handed the White House an interim report on Porter in March and two more updates in July and November, had photos of ex-wife Colbie Holderness sporting a black eye she said Porter gave her in 2005 by Jan. 27, 2017, just seven days after President Trump's inauguration, CNN reports, citing emails between Holderness and the FBI.
The credible domestic violence allegations, also backed up by a police report, had prevented Porter from getting a security clearance. After FBI Director Christopher Wray scrambled the White House's timeline of when top officials knew about the Porter issues, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted that Porter's background investigation was still ongoing at the White House Personnel Security Office, an obscure White House office she mentioned 12 times on Tuesday's press briefing, by The Washington Post's count. Administration officials suggested that office held the Porter investigation closely, but people who worked on security clearances in past Republican and Democratic administrations found that very improbable.
The idea that White House Counsel Don McGahn learned about the black-eye photo from news reports last week "isn't reasonable," national security expert Mark Zaid told CNN. "I would be surprised that if in their partial report in March, the FBI either didn't include the photo or, at a minimum, reference they had photographic evidence of the domestic assault," he said, and "and I can't fathom it not being part of the completed report" in July. Even if those reports went just to the security office, "the security office routinely flags issues such as drug use, financial problems, or marital infidelity to political higher-ups," The Washington Post reports, especially for someone of Porter's seniority and importance. Peter Weber
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly has severely mishandled the allegations of domestic abuse against former Staff Secretary Rob Porter, numerous White House aides and advisers told The Washington Post, so much so that one said it "amounts to dereliction of duty."
Last week, Porter's two ex-wives came forward and said Porter had physically and verbally abused them during their marriages. Kelly first defended Porter, and the White House eventually landed on a timeline that had Porter's background investigation ongoing through his departure. In front of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray contradicted this version of events, saying the White House received a partial background report on Porter last March, with the full report sent in July.
Several people told the Post that in the wake of the Porter fiasco, President Trump has been asking about possible replacements for Kelly, and many senior staffers say they believe that Kelly told them to offer a misleading timeline about the Porter accusations. He's a "big fat liar," one staffer said of the retired four-star Marine Corps general. "To put it in terms the general would understand, his handling of the Porter scandal amounts to dereliction of duty."
Kelly does not believe he should be blamed for the fallout, one confidant told the Post, and he thinks the White House communications office should take some responsibility. He also gets defensive when discussing the matter and complains that the media is making a bigger deal out of the allegations than is necessary, several people told the Post. When asked by the Post if Kelly could have been more transparent or truthful, one staffer responded: "In this White House, it's simply not in our DNA. Truthful and transparent is great, but we don't even have a coherent strategy to obfuscate." Read more about the debacle at The Washington Post. Catherine Garcia
In public, President Trump has given former White House staff secretary Rob Porter the benefit of the doubt, wishing him well on Friday while reminding reporters "you have to remember that he said very strongly yesterday that he's innocent" of domestic violence against his ex-wives. On Saturday, Trump lamented on Twitter that "lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation" with no "Due Process." But privately, Jonathan Swan reports at Axios, Trump "has told multiple people that he believes the accusations about Porter, and finds him 'sick.'"
Trump's split public-private reaction to the Porter allegations "is the strongest indicator yet that Trump will reflexively defend his male allies from any and all accusations, even when he thinks those accusations are true," Swan says. "Trump tells friends that he deplores the #MeToo movement and believes it unfairly exposes CEOs to lawsuits from their female employees." Still, Trump told associates that men who beat their wives, like child molesters, are "sick puppies," Axios reports, and Trump was shocked that a guy like Porter, "straight out of central casting," was violent with women.
Regardless of his private views, "White House aides acknowledged that the Porter scandal is all-consuming, even for an administration that is used to bouncing from crisis to crisis," Politico reports, and it's testing the patience of Trump allies. "The president is more interested in promoting what he considers star casting than competent people," one prominent Republican close to the White House and congressional Republicans tells Politico. "This chases the competent people out (or keeps them away) and empowers the people who look good on paper or in front of a camera."
A senior administration official shrugged, expressing confidence that Trump's Twitter feed can shift attention to immigration. "We have an uncanny ability to change news cycles," the official told Politico. "I think he'll be able to shift it to what he wants." Peter Weber
White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter resigned Wednesday, hours after Britain's Daily Mail and The Intercept reported that Porter physically and verbally abused both of his ex-wives. But other than that established point, the White House has given significantly different versions of who knew what, when.
Notably, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly's version of Porter's departure is markedly different than the version from other White House officials, so "either the White House spokespeople or the president's chief of staff is lying," says Jonathan Swan at Axios. "It's a stunning display of incompetence that five days after the initial story broke, they still can't get their stories straight."
In Kelly's version, he demanded and got Porter's resignation within 40 minutes of fully understanding the severity of the allegations from the Daily Mail story, then went in and told President Trump what had happened. Porter had misled him Tuesday about the nature of the imminent negative stories about his marriages, Kelly told people to say.
But "multiple administration officials" told Politico and other news organizations that Kelly had known about the main points of the allegations against Porter for months, as had White House Counsel Don McGahn. In the main alternate timeline from the White House, the communications team had met with Porter on Tuesday, warned Kelly about the coming domestic violence accusations, then worked up a statement defending Porter in Kelly's name. On Wednesday, Swan says, "the White House press team told reporters that nobody asked for Porter's resignation. They added that several senior officials encouraged Porter to 'stay and fight,'" possibly including Kelly.
On Sunday's Face the Nation, White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney added another wrinkle, saying that Porter had proclaimed his innocence to Trump himself, telling him: "I've been falsely accused of this. Please don't believe it. It's not true." Porter was given "the benefit of the doubt" until the photos of Porter's ex-wife's black eye were published, Mulvaney said. That would be at 1:53 a.m. on Twitter — so Trump was plausibly asleep. Peter Weber
"The Rob Porter crisis has become a John Kelly crisis, and it has now totally engulfed the West Wing," says Jonathan Swan at Axios. But while President Trump complains to friends and advisers about his White House chief of staff's mishandling of the scandal over the former staff secretary's apparent violence toward his ex-wives, and especially the bad press it is engendering, Kelly's job is safe for one strange reason: Kelly hates his job. "That changes Trump's calculus," a source close to Trump tells Swan.
There are other reasons Trump won't fire Kelly — "the president needs and trusts John Kelly," one official assures CNN, and Swan says Trump is still impressed by Kelly's toughness and four-star general status, doesn't think the scandal has touched him personally, and doesn't have an obvious replacement in mind. But Trump also doesn't appear to "have the stomach to do what he normally does when he's fed up with them," the source close to Trump tells Axios. "He usually makes their lives miserable, publicly humiliates them. But now he's up against somebody who doesn't care and would happily leave."
Kelly's stock among the West Wing staff has also tanked because of his effusive support for Porter right up until he resigned Wednesday, but staffers also see Kelly as a critical stabilizing force in Trump's chaotic White House, CNN reports. The White House is actively trying to "inoculate Kelly and protect him" from the scandal by "essentially placing blame on others," a source familiar with the strategy tells Axios. And even aides who resent Kelly's iron fist, like Ivanka Trump, "won't do anything to undermine him," one official tells CNN. "If Kelly leaves, the rest of the ship goes with him." So: Sorry, Kelly. Peter Weber
At least two top White House officials, Chief of Staff John Kelly and Counsel Don McGahn, knew for months that former staff secretary Rob Porter had been credibly accused of abuse by his two ex-wives, The Washington Post and CNN report, and they not only didn't follow up on the allegations but elevated Porter's responsibilities and access to President Trump. Kelly, especially, is facing withering criticism over the mishandling of the Porter scandal.
Kelly reportedly learned about the spousal abuse accusations last fall when McGahn told him they were holding up Porter's security clearance. Kelly "agreed that Porter should remain and said he was surprised to learn that the 40-year-old had ex-wives," the Post reports. He urged Porter not to resign even after The Intercept published photos Wednesday of a black eye Porter's first wife says he gave her, according to White House officials. Trump is not inclined to fire Kelly, yet, CNN reports.
McGahn also has some explaining to do, the Post reports:
In January 2017, when McGahn learned of the allegations, he wanted Porter to stay put because he saw the Harvard Law-trained Capitol Hill veteran as a steadying, professional voice in the White House, according to people familiar with the matter. His view didn't change in June when the FBI flagged some of its findings to the White House. Nor did he act in September when he learned that the domestic violence claims were delaying Porter's security clearance, or in November when Porter's former girlfriend contacted him about the allegations, according to these people. A White House spokesman said that McGahn — who had access to the FBI's background investigation file conducted for Porter’s security clearance — and Kelly feel misled by Porter. [The Washington Post]
The White House had rallied support for Porter Tuesday by arguing that the allegations were part of a "smear campaign" led by, among other people, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, two sources tell The Daily Beast. Lewandoski flatly denied any role in Porter's downfall. Peter Weber