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White House admits 'we all could have done better' on Porter departure

Hunter Walker
White House Correspondent

WASHINGTON — During the White House briefing on Thursday, deputy press secretary Raj Shah addressed criticism of the Trump administration’s handling of multiple domestic abuse allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter.

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

Porter resigned on Wednesday, one day after allegations of spousal abuse became public. In an interview with the (U.K.) Daily Mail, Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, recounted Porter’s physical and verbal abuse during their marriage, allegations that Porter vehemently denied.

On Wednesday, the paper released a follow-up piece in which Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, made similar claims, and provided a photo of herself with a black eye that she said was caused by Porter.

Initially, when the Mail was set to release the interview with Willoughby, the White House provided multiple statements to the paper in support of Porter, including one from chief of staff John Kelly.

“Rob Porter 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,” Kelly said in a written statement.

Press secretary Sarah Sanders also gave a statement to the newspaper wherein she described Porter as “someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character.”

White House chief of staff John Kelly, left, with staff secretary Rob Porter, Nov. 29, 2017. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

At Wednesday’s White House briefing, hours before the second set of abuse allegations and accompanying photos emerged, Sanders said Porter had “been effective in his role as staff secretary” and added that “the president and chief of staff have had full confidence and trust in his abilities and his performance.” She also read a statement from Porter denying the charges. Sanders said Porter would be “leaving the White House” but would initially “stay on to ensure that there’s a smooth transition moving forward.”

All of that changed after the second set of accusations and the photographic evidence that accompanied them.

“I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. 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,” Kelly said in a subsequent statement.

The White House’s initial decision to stand by Porter in the face of domestic abuse accusations drew sharp criticism, forcing Shah to acknowledge the discrepancy between Kelly’s two statements during Thursday’s briefing.

“I think the second statement that he sent out reflected his thoughts,” Shah said. “Which is that these allegations are deeply troubling. They are shocking. And I think the first statement reflected, you know, the Rob Porter that we have known.”

Shah later said that Kelly’s final statement was, in part, based on the “additional allegations” and further information in the second report.

John Kelly and President Trump at a meeting with North Korean defectors, Feb. 2, 2018. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

In addition to the controversy over the White House’s first public response to Porter, there have also been questions about when top administration officials first became aware of the abuse claims. Holderness told the Daily Mail that the FBI interviewed her about her marriage to Porter since he was being reviewed for a security clearance. CNN later reported that senior officials, including Kelly, were aware of the situation “for months.”

Shah began Thursday’s briefing by reading a statement in which he gave a description of the White House background check process.

“It’s important to remember that Rob Porter has repeatedly denied these allegations, and done so publicly,” Shah said. “That doesn’t change how serious and disturbing these allegations are. They’re upsetting, and the background check investigates both the allegations and the denials. The investigation does not stop when allegations come to light. It continues to determine the truth.”

When pressed about when, exactly, various White House officials had learned about the allegations of spousal abuse, Shah said he could not get into “specifics.”

Shah also did not answer a question about whether Kelly had been “partially aware” of the allegations prior to the second newspaper story and the photos of Holderness’s black eye.

“Well, I think we all became aware of the news reports that emerged on Wednesday morning, and some of the graphic images,” said Shah.

As staff secretary, Porter was responsible for the flow of documents in and out of the Oval Office, including sensitive and potentially classified information. Shah implied Porter’s background investigation was ongoing, and said he was operating with an “interim” security clearance.

Other top White House aides — including former deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka, and Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law — have also been issued interim clearances. At the briefing, Shah was asked whether there are “a lot of other people, at the highest levels in the White House, operating under a temporary security pass.”

“I can’t get into that,” Shah replied.

Prior to the abuse allegations, the Daily Mail reported that Porter was in a romantic relationship with White House communications director Hope Hicks, one of Trump’s longest serving aides. Shah said Hicks had recused herself from “some matters concerning” Porter’s situation.

His first time behind the White House podium, Shah was filling in for Sanders at Thursday’s briefing, which was rescheduled multiple times and began over two hours later than it was originally scheduled.

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