Political News

Trump praises former top adviser accused of abusing ex-wives

Posted February 9, 2018 3:06 p.m. EST
Updated February 9, 2018 4:18 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Friday praised Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary who resigned Wednesday amid spousal abuse allegations, saying it was a “tough time” for the disgraced former aide and noting that Porter had denied the accusations.

“We wish him well,” Trump said of Porter, who was accused of physical and emotional abuse by two ex-wives. The president added, “As you probably know, he says he is innocent.”

“He worked very hard,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. He said he had only “recently” learned of the allegations against Porter and was surprised.

“He did a very good job when he was in the White House, and we hope he has a wonderful career, and he will have a great career ahead of him,” Trump said. “But it was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly he’s also very sad now.”

The glowing praise of a staff member accused of serial violence against women was in line with the president’s own denials of sexual impropriety despite accusations from more than a dozen women and his habit of accepting claims of innocence from men facing similar allegations. Among them was Roy Moore, the former Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, who is accused of molesting teenage girls.

Trump’s comments came as a new timeline emerged indicating that top officials knew much earlier than previously disclosed that Porter faced accusations of violence against women.

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, first learned from Porter himself that there were abuse allegations against him, according to two people briefed on the situation. McGahn’s knowledge of the accusations in January was first reported by The Washington Post.

Porter told him about the allegations because he was concerned that what he characterized as false charges could derail his FBI background check, according to one of the two people briefed on the matter.

Six months later, the FBI told McGahn that accusations had indeed surfaced in Porter’s background check. McGahn opted at that time to let the FBI complete its investigation into any incidents. Porter assured McGahn, another person briefed on the matter said, that the accusations from the former wives were lies.

The emerging timeline illustrates the degree to which Porter, a clean-cut and ambitious former Rhodes scholar and Harvard-educated lawyer, concealed troublesome episodes from his past that would normally be considered disqualifying for a senior White House aide.

Those efforts appear to have succeeded for months, at least in part because of the willingness of a virtually all-male staff in the top echelons of the West Wing to believe a talented male colleague over women they had never met.

Lawyers in the counsel’s office believed that the bureau — with its vast investigative powers — was best positioned to look into the accusations, the two people briefed on the matter said, and believed it was not their job to investigate conduct that took place long before the official began working in the administration.

That represents a sharp break with past practice, in which White House counsels undertook elaborate vetting of senior advisers before they were hired — and looked into any serious allegations that surfaced thereafter.

In November, the White House heard back from the FBI Senior White House officials, including John F. Kelly, chief of staff, Joe Hagin, deputy chief of staff, and McGahn received word from the bureau that the allegations were credible and that Porter was not likely to pass his background check.

But while McGahn privately informed Porter and encouraged him to consider moving on, according to one of the two people briefed, no action was taken to immediately terminate him. Rather, McGahn requested that the FBI complete its investigation and come back to the White House with a final recommendation, a process that could take months.

It was unclear precisely what Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff who was instrumental in recruiting Porter, knew about the matter before he left. One of the two people briefed on the matter said that Priebus was told there was an issue with Porter’s clearance. Priebus has told people that he was unaware of the details and didn’t know that Porter had ex-wives. Also unknown is whether Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who became strong allies of Porter and sought to promote him wherever possible internally, were aware of his troubles.

Regardless of whether they knew details, there were a significant number of people who were aware that there was something unseemly in the ether about Porter, and none appear to have sought more information.

At least two weeks ago, members of the White House communications office were alerted that journalists were beginning to ask questions about Porter and his ex-wives and his security clearance, according to three people familiar with the discussions. There was no effort made to try to address the issue, and White House aides tried to wait it out.

Within the West Wing, staff members also appeared to be obfuscating with their own colleagues. Hagin insisted that he was unaware of the FBI’s concerns as The Daily Mail published an initial article about the allegations against Porter. So did Kelly, who denied to some of his aides that he was aware of any specifics about Porter last fall.

The common thread in the West Wing was that Porter was among the few staff members who were widely liked and who had not become a major target of the warring factions in the White House.

One person who appeared unaware of what was taking place was Donald Trump, who was livid when he learned of the allegations, according to two advisers. He spent Thursday working the phones, referring to Porter in one call as “bad garbage,” according to the advisers, and expressing his frustration with both Kelly and Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, to others. Hicks had been dating Porter and was one of the officials behind initial White House statements supporting him.

The president, who is frustrated with how Kelly handled the matter, has now sounded out several people about possible replacement chiefs of staff. Those possible replacements include Mick Mulvaney, the budget director; Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California; and Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser.