FBI chief re­buts Porter time­line

Tur­moil over aide grows, with Kelly at the cen­ter


The White House strug­gled Tues­day to con­tain a widen­ing cri­sis over its han­dling of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence al­le­ga­tions against a se­nior of­fi­cial, as it reeled af­ter sworn tes­ti­mony by the FBI chief di­rectly con­tra­dicted what Pres­i­dent Trump’s aides had pre­sented as the of­fi­cial ver­sion of events.

FBI Di­rec­tor Christo­pher A. Wray told the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee that the bureau had com­pleted a back­ground re­port on then-staff sec­re­tary Rob Porter last July and closed out the case en­tirely last month. Wray’s ac­count is at odds with White House claims that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­quired for Porter’s se­cu­rity clear­ance was “on­go­ing” un­til he left his job last week, af­ter his two ex-wives pub­licly al­leged phys­i­cal and emo­tional abuse.

The lat­est bout of tur­bu­lence is ex­ac­er­bated by the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s rep­u­ta­tion, earned over 13 chaotic months, for flout­ing in­sti­tu­tional norms and mis­repre-

sent­ing facts to the pub­lic — a cul­ture set by the pres­i­dent him­self.

The pub­lic re­la­tions fall­out is fur­ther com­pounded by Trump’s own his­tory of al­leged sex­ual as­sault and his seem­ing re­luc­tance to pub­licly con­demn vi­o­lence against women and give voice to the na­tional #MeToo reck­on­ing.

The pres­i­dent has said lit­tle pub­licly about the Porter is­sue other than to praise the for­mer aide for do­ing “a very good job.” But he has pri­vately ex­pressed frus­tra­tion with the week-long fall­out, pep­per­ing ad­vis­ers and con­fi­dants with ques­tions about the me­dia cov­er­age and how the con­tro­versy is play­ing for him per­son­ally.

The Porter drama has be­come all-con­sum­ing, cre­at­ing an at­mos­phere of chaos and in­fight­ing rem­i­nis­cent of the “Game of Thrones” stage early in Trump’s pres­i­dency — and dis­tract­ing from the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s bud­get and infrastructure agenda.

Many aides blame Kelly

In­side the West Wing, a grow­ing num­ber of aides blamed Trump’s sec­ond White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, for the bun­gled han­dling of the al­le­ga­tions against Porter. Trump in re­cent days has be­gun mus­ing about pos­si­ble re­place­ments, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple with knowl­edge of the con­ver­sa­tions.

Asked by a re­porter to as­sess Kelly’s stand­ing with Trump af­ter a week of trou­bling rev­e­la­tions, White House press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders said that “the pres­i­dent has con­fi­dence in his chief of staff.”

But Kelly does not en­joy the con­fi­dence of an in­creas­ing num­ber of his sub­or­di­nates, some of whom said they be­lieve that the re­tired four-star Ma­rine Corps gen­eral has mis­led them.

Kelly is “a big fat liar,” said one White House of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to share a can­did opin­ion. “To put it in terms the gen­eral would un­der­stand, his han­dling of the Porter scan­dal amounts to dere­lic­tion of duty.”

This por­trait of the West Wing in tur­moil is based on in­ter­views with more than a dozen top White House of­fi­cials and out­side ad­vis­ers and con­fi­dants, most of whom spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause they feared ret­ri­bu­tion.

Kelly’s at­tempts at ex­plain­ing his role, ac­cord­ing to some aides, have in­cluded telling se­nior staff mem­bers last Fri­day to com­mu­ni­cate a ver­sion of events many be­lieved to be false, as well as telling at least one con­fi­dant that he has “a good bulls--- de­tec­tor” and had long de­tected trou­bling char­ac­ter­is­tics in Porter.

But Kelly ini­tially de­fended Porter last week as “a man of true in­tegrity and honor.” And in re­cent weeks, Kelly was even con­sid­er­ing giv­ing Porter an ex­panded role in pol­icy de­vel­op­ment, a po­ten­tial pro­mo­tion first re­ported by CNN.

“Cred­i­bil­ity is the coin of the realm for any White House chief of staff, and it’s es­pe­cially im­por­tant in a White House where truth was the first ca­su­alty and cred­i­bil­ity has been the sec­ond,” said Chris Whip­ple, who wrote a book about chiefs of staff.

The in­ter­nal an­i­mus is not lim­ited to Kelly. White House coun­sel Don­ald McGahn and deputy chief of staff Joe Ha­gin are also fac­ing scru­tiny over how Porter man­aged to work at the White House — and hold an in­terim se­cu­rity clear­ance — for more than a year de­spite the al­le­ga­tions of abuse dur­ing his two mar­riages.

Wray dis­putes ac­count

On Tues­day, Wray con­tra­dicted the White House’s ac­count of when the bureau in­formed of­fi­cials about the sta­tus of Porter’s se­cu­rity clear­ance in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

White House of­fi­cials had said that they were first con­tacted last sum­mer by the FBI about Porter’s clear­ance, and that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion as of last week was “on­go­ing” and had not been com­pleted.

But Wray, tes­ti­fy­ing be­fore the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, said that the FBI sub­mit­ted a par­tial re­port on Porter’s clear­ance last March and that the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was com­pleted last July. Soon af­ter, he added, the FBI re­ceived a re­quest for a fol­low-up, which the bureau com­pleted and pro­vided last Novem­ber.

The FBI closed the file in Jan­uary, and when it re­ceived ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion this month, “we passed it on as well,” Wray said.

At the White House, San­ders sought to square the con­flict­ing time­lines, ar­gu­ing that even af­ter the FBI closed its in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the pres­i­den­tial per­son­nel of­fice was still re­view­ing Porter’s case when he re­signed last week.

“Clearly things hap­pened af­ter the FBI de­liv­ered this in­for­ma­tion to the White House that re­sulted in Porter’s case just pend­ing for an ex­tended pe­riod of time in the per­son­nel of­fice,” said Ron Klain, a se­nior White House aide in the last two Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tions. “It was a de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion to let him stay at the White House with this hang­ing over his head.”

The fall­out has left Kelly with di­min­ished in­ter­nal sup­port and spawned in­ten­si­fied threats from those who hope to use the con­tro­versy to force him from his job.

Sev­eral Kelly an­tag­o­nists have sought to fan spec­u­la­tion that his po­si­tion may be in im­mi­nent dan­ger, not­ing that Trump has been seek­ing coun­sel from friends about who he might bring on as a new chief of staff. The pres­i­dent has floated re­plac­ing Kelly with ei­ther Gary Cohn, the di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Eco­nomic Coun­cil, or House Ma­jor­ity Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — though Trump has of­ten sounded out friends about per­son­nel changes that he ul­ti­mately does not make.

Nonethe­less, one foe de­scribed Kelly as “well done,” while an­other said he was in “big league” trou­ble.

An­thony Scara­mucci, who served as White House com­muni- cations di­rec­tor for 10 days last sum­mer un­til Kelly fired him, tweeted, “Kelly must re­sign.” He con­tin­ued: “Do­mes­tic abuse is a red line. Cov­er­ing up for it is in­de­fen­si­ble.”

White House in­fight­ing

Some White House of­fi­cials, who un­til re­cently spoke of Kelly with rev­er­ence, have found ways to dis­tance them­selves from their boss, in­clud­ing by re­fus­ing to per­son­ally vouch for his cred­i­bil­ity.

For the past two days, San­ders has ac­knowl­edged that the White House could have han­dled the Porter sit­u­a­tion bet­ter, a sen­ti­ment first of­fered last week by her deputy, Raj Shah, and echoed by Vice Pres­i­dent Pence. But Kelly, in com­ments to the Wall Street Jour­nal on Mon­day, said, “It was all done right.”

Some of Kelly’s col­leagues of­fered a more in­nocu­ous ex­pla­na­tion for his mis­steps; one se­nior White House of­fi­cial sug­gested that he may sim­ply have been “for­get­ful or inart­ful,” rather than de­lib­er­ately men­da­cious.

On Tues­day, San­ders par­ried a num­ber of sharp ques­tions from re­porters, of­fer­ing only vague re­sponses. She said at one point that her an­swers could only be as com­plete as the in­for­ma­tion she had been pro­vided by her su­pe­ri­ors — re­marks widely in­ter­preted as an at­tempt to dis­tance her­self from Kelly.

“Ob­vi­ously the press team’s not go­ing to be as read-in, maybe, as some other el­e­ments at a given mo­ment on a va­ri­ety of top­ics,” San­ders said. “But we re­lay the best and most ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion that we have, and we get those from those in­di­vid­u­als.”

In­side the build­ing, of­fi­cials pri­vately griped that Kelly and McGahn could have bet­ter man­aged the cri­sis by ad­mit­ting mis­takes, promis­ing to over­haul the se­cu­rity clear­ance process and pro­tect­ing the pres­i­dent.

In­stead, these peo­ple said, Kelly seemed to shirk blame, grum­bling to at least one con­fi­dant that the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of­fice should be held partly re­spon­si­ble. In in­ter­nal con­ver­sa­tions, Kelly sounded de­fen­sive and com­plained that the me­dia was over­hyp­ing the story, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior White House of­fi­cial who spoke with him.

But not all of Kelly’s team shared his view. Dur­ing Wray’s tes­ti­mony, an­other White House aide texted a Wash­ing­ton Post re­porter, de­scrib­ing the mo­ment as “a killer.”

When asked if Kelly could have been more trans­par­ent or truth­ful, that of­fi­cial wrote: “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.”

Sev­eral White House aides de­scribed them­selves as ini­tially caught off guard by the al­le­ga­tions against Porter, a Rhodes scholar with two de­grees from Har­vard who had es­tab­lished him­self as a pro­fes­sional and com­pe­tent force in­side the West Wing.

But as pho­tos emerged show­ing his first ex-wife with a black eye — and as they lis­tened to his ex­pla­na­tion, which some found im­plau­si­ble — some of­fi­cials said they be­came con­vinced that the two women were telling the truth.

“Cred­i­bil­ity is the coin of the realm for any White House chief of staff, and it’s es­pe­cially im­por­tant in a White House where truth was the first ca­su­alty and cred­i­bil­ity has been the sec­ond.” Chris Whip­ple, au­thor of a book about chiefs of staff


White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly still has the pres­i­dent’s con­fi­dence, press sec­re­tary Sarah Huck­abee San­ders said.

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