WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House was not fully aware of the extent of the domestic abuse allegations against former White House aide Rob Porter until photographs of an ex-wife with a black eye emerged on Wednesday, a White House spokesman said on Thursday.
The White House, which had backed Porter until the photo was published amid allegations of domestic abuse, said Porter’s last day as White House staff secretary was on Wednesday, when he resigned.
Porter, a Harvard law school graduate and former Rhodes scholar whose position required a security clearance and close contact with the president, had not yet been approved for a security clearance because the required background check was still ongoing, White House spokesman Raj Shah said.
Shah told reporters that President Donald Trump was not aware of any issues with Porter’s security clearance before Tuesday and “was surprised” by the abuse allegations.
“He, like many of us, did not see that in Rob Porter, did not see what these allegations have brought forward. So he was surprised by it. He was disheartened by it. He was saddened by it,” Shah said at a news briefing.
Shah also said that White House chief of staff John Kelly was not “fully aware” of the extent of the allegations when he made his initial statement supporting Porter on Tuesday.
Asked what “fully aware” meant, Shah said: “I do know, for instance, that he had not seen images prior to the statement on Tuesday night.”
Kelly released a second statement on Wednesday saying he stood by his previous comments about Porter, but adding that he was “shocked” by the allegations. “There is no place for domestic violence in our society,” Kelly said in the statement.
Kelly’s handling of the situation was causing some in Washington to question his political judgment and management skills.
“Sometimes, good people make bad decisions,” Republican Senator John Kennedy said in an interview with CNN. “I don’t care who you are, even if you are a Rhodes scholar, you can’t beat the hell out of your spouse. It’s wrong,” he said.
Senator Martin Heinrich, a Democrat, said in a statement that if Kelly “covered up Staff Secretary Rob Porter’s record of domestic violence then he should resign immediately.”
There was no sign, however, that Kelly was in danger of losing his job. A White House staffer familiar with the president’s thinking said Trump feels Kelly “does a good job” and said that Trump rises to Kelly’s defence when it seems the news media is out to get him.
Shah said at Thursday’s briefing that the president has “full confidence” in Kelly, a gruff, retired Marine Corps four-star general who was made chief of staff last summer in order to bring more order and discipline to the White House.
While he has done that, Kelly has been the subject of several controversies of his own.
Just this week, he told reporters that some illegal immigrants eligible for protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme may have chosen not to sign up because they are “too lazy to get off their asses.”
Shah said that there was nothing unusual in Porter’s working as staff secretary without yet having a security clearance.
Porter was working with an interim clearance issued to those who have not previously undergone the full check, Shah said, adding that the White House did not have all the details on Porter that had been compiled by law enforcement.
“This is a process used throughout the U.S. government,” Shah said. “Rob Porter was never denied a security clearance. He was never given any special treatment. The process was still ongoing.”
The Daily Mail and the Intercept reported that Porter’s two former wives had accused him of domestic abuse, allegations which Porter has denied. Reuters has not independently confirmed the allegations.
Shah said the White House had not handled its response to the situation as well as it should have, adding: “A lot of us could have done better.”
Reporting by Jeff Mason, Steve Holland, Eric Beech and David Alexander; Writing by Susan Heavey and David Alexander; Editing by Damon Darlin and Leslie Adler