FBI contradicts White House on probe of former aide Porter

Contradicting the White House, the FBI said Tuesday it gave the Trump administration information on multiple occasions last year about a top aide accused of domestic abuse by his two ex-wives.

Statement flies in face of assertions Porter's 'background investigation was ongoing' when he resigned

FBI Director Christopher Wray said the agency provided the White House with information twice last year about Rob Porter, the top Trump aide who resigned as staff secretary last week. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

Contradicting the White House, the FBI said Tuesday it gave the Trump administration information on multiple occasions last year about a top aide accused of domestic abuse by his two ex-wives, and the investigation wrapped up in January.

That account by FBI Director Christopher Wray challenged the White House assertion that Rob Porter's background investigation "was ongoing" and officials first learned the extent of accusations against him only last week, just before he abruptly resigned.

Wray's statements Tuesday in testimony under oath to the Senate intelligence committee marked the latest development in a scandal that has called into question the judgment of senior members of the White House staff, put new stress on the administration's already strained credibility with the public and drawn accusations of tone-deaf handling of abuse allegations.

The weeklong fallout from the allegations against Porter, U.S. President Donald Trump's staff secretary, has thrown the West Wing into chaos not seen since the earliest months of the administration and has sparked new rounds of recriminations inside the White House.

Porter considered for deputy chief of staff

Privately, officials acknowledge that the public timeline offered last week — that the administration first learned of the ex-wives' charges against Porter last Tuesday — was flawed at best.

Several senior officials, including chief of staff John Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn, were aware of the broad allegations against Porter for months, officials said.

Then-White House staff secretary Rob Porter, right, and chief of staff John Kelly meet in the Oval Office Sept. 1. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

Kelly found out after requesting an update on the large number of senior staffers operating without full security clearances, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions. McGahn told Kelly last fall there was concern about information in the background investigation involving Porter's ex-wives, the official said, and Kelly expressed surprise that Porter had previously been married.

Despite that, Porter took on an increasingly central role in the West Wing and was under consideration to serve as Trump's deputy chief of staff, two officials said.

'We find those statements to be consistent'

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday, "The White House had not received any specific papers regarding the completion of that background check." Yet Wray testified that the FBI sent the White House its preliminary report in March 2017 and its completed investigation in late July. Soon after that, the agency received a request for a followup inquiry, and it provided that information in November. Porter was interviewed about the allegations in September, an official said.

"And then we administratively closed the file in January, and then earlier this month we received some additional information and we passed that on, as well," Wray added in his congressional testimony Tuesday, without elaboration.

The FBI does not make recommendations about whether to grant or deny a security clearance, officials said, leaving the determination up to the employee's agency — in Porter's case, the White House.

Sanders maintained Tuesday that her statement about an ongoing investigation was accurate because Porter's clearance hadn't received a final sign-off from the White House Office of Personnel Security.

"We find those statements to be consistent with one another," she said.

'We have a broken system'

The White House has refused to divulge the number of staff members who still do not have full clearances, though the list includes Jared Kushner, the president's senior adviser and son-in-law. Kushner's attorney, Abbe Lowell, said in a statement that "there are a dozen or more people at Mr. Kushner's level" who are working without full security clearances.

Separately, Trump's intelligence chief called for top-to-bottom reform of the security clearance process, which allowed Porter to operate in his job for more than a year with only an interim clearance.

"We have a broken system and I think everybody's come to agree with that now," Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told The Associated Press. He called for limits on the information made accessible to those with temporary clearances — a practice that is currently not followed in the West Wing, an official said.

Meanwhile, Colbie Holderness, Porter's first wife, pushed back against comments made by presidential counsellor Kellyanne Conway that seemed to suggest strong women can't be victims of domestic violence.

'You can't justify that'

Conway, in a weekend interview on CNN, said she had no reason to disbelieve accounts by Holderness and another ex-wife that Porter had abused them. But when asked if she was concerned for top White House aide Hope Hicks, who reportedly was dating Porter, Conway said no because "I've rarely met somebody so strong with such excellent instincts and loyalty and smarts."

Conway went on to say that "there's no question" that domestic violence "knows no demographic or geographic bounds," and she understands there is a stigma that surrounds these issues.

U.S. President Donald Trump has offered his support to a former aide accused of domestic violence, wishing Rob Porter well following his resignation. Porter was a staff secretary to Trump, but resigned after two of his ex-wives accused him of assault. Trump typically wishes all of his outgoing staffers well, but his latest comments have raised some eyebrows due to the allegations Porter faces. The FBI started looking into Porter more than a year ago, which raises the age-old question, what did the White House know? And when did it know it? 2:04

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Holderness wrote that Conway's first statement "implies that those who have been in abusive relationships are not strong. I beg to differ."

Porter resigned after Holderness and his second ex-wife, Jennifer Willoughby, came forward with allegations of emotional and physical abuse. Porter has denied harming his former partners.

The White House approach has drawn criticism even from Trump's own party.

"I think you can't justify it," Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst told CNN about a report that the White House arranged for Porter to defend himself privately to reporters after the allegations surfaced. "You can't justify that."