White House struggles with abuse vetting mess
WASHINGTON >> President Donald Trump broke his silence on the subject of spousal abuse Wednesday, declaring publicly that he is “totally opposed to it” — but spoke out only as a scandal continued to fester over the White House handling of domestic violence allegations against a former top aide.
For more than a week, the administration has proven unable to convincingly answer questions about how officials failed to respond to accusations of physical abuse levied by two ex-wives against Rob Porter, who until last week served as a key White House official.
On Wednesday, Congress entered the picture as Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., announced that his House Oversight Committee was launching an investigation to find out what and when the White House knew about the allegations. He vowed that he’d either get answers or “a really good reason” why there weren’t any.
“I am interested in how someone with credible allegations of domestic abuse, plural, can be hired,” Gowdy said.
He added that he had questions about the interim security clearance Porter had received, which allowed him to continue to work in the White House and handle highly classified material even after the FBI had indicated that he would be unlikely to receive a permanent clearance.
A congressional investigation could keep the controversy in public view for weeks or months, an unattractive prospect for the White House.
Within hours, the president, who had shunned questions all week, was talking, condemning all forms of violence within families.
“I am totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind,” Trump said. “Everyone knows that, and it almost wouldn’t even have to be said.”
His choice to say it anyway indicated that Trump recognizes the harm the Porter case has done to his administration. Officials had wanted to spend this month claiming credit for the economy and pushing Trump’s infrastructure plans.
Instead, the news has focused on whether his chief of staff, John Kelly, had known of the accusations against Porter and ignored them or had been negligent in not asking why Porter hadn’t received a full security clearance.
Until Wednesday, Trump’s only comments had been to lavish praise on Porter and question whether men accused of misconduct were being denied due process. Those remarks and tweets heightened outrage among women and many men across the country.
AS DAY AFTER DAY passed without the president personally expressing sympathy for victims of domestic violence, GOP strategists began to voice concern about the potential effect on this year’s midterm election.
The Porter case raises particular problems for Trump because of his own history of having been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct.
On Wednesday, a former porn star, Stormy Daniels, who received a $130,000 payment from Trump’s personal lawyer, said she now felt free to talk about her history with Trump because the lawyer had publicly confirmed making the payment. The lawyer, Michael Cohen, said Tuesday that he had made the payment shortly before last year’s election, but said the money did not come from the Trump Organization.
Daniels has previously said she had an affair with Trump that began when his wife, Melania, was pregnant.
If Trump didn’t see trouble coming, his fellow Republicans seemed to have sensed it. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said he considers it Gowdy’s “proper job” to look into the Porter case.
And Vice President Mike Pence told a reporter that the administration has “no tolerance for domestic violence, nor should any American.”
In a rare break with administration practice, he expressed regret and suggested that feeling hadn’t come upon him suddenly.
“I think the White House could have handled this better,” Pence said. “I still feel that way.”
Others in the White House admitted the same thing, though no officials have offered to spell out what they think a better course of action might look like.
THERE WERE SIGNS that the White House vetting process was suddenly tougher, but in an unexpected manner. George David Banks, an official at the White House’s National Economic Council, announced he was stepping down. He said he was doing so after disclosing that he had used marijuana several years ago. Like many other employees in the White House, Banks was working on an interim security clearance while investigators examined his background.
Also on Wednesday, an inspector general’s report said that Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin had improperly accepted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament and brought his wife on a European trip at taxpayer expense. Shulkin was an undersecretary in the Obama administration — which was proud of its vigorous vetting — for 18 months before Trump took office.
One week after White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter resigned amid spousal abuse allegations, President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he was “totally opposed to domestic violence,” his first condemnation of the alleged conduct behind a scandal that has engulfed the White House. Above, Porter, left, Chief of Staff John Kelly and senior adviser Jared Kushner walk together at the White House in Washington.