How the White House’s Handling of the Rob Porter Mess Became a Bona Fide Scandal | News

How the White House’s Handling of the Rob Porter Mess Became a Bona Fide Scandal

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This post is excerpted from the INDY’s morning newsletter, Primer. To read this morning’s edition in full, click here. To get all the day’s local and national headlines and insights delivered straight to your inbox, sign up here.

To be honest, I haven’t been following the Rob Porter scandal as closely as I should have. After all, what’s one more scandal in a White House teeming with them? President Trump’s lawyer paid a porn star to keep quiet about her affair with the president and it barely made a dent. Trump called African countries “shitholes” and his poll numbers didn’t crater. Trump actually hired white nationalists and gave them top positions in the administration. So I figured a relatively unknown staffer ousted after allegations of domestic violence would be just another drip in the deluge. But I was wrong.
  • First, some background for those, like me, who might not have been following along: last Tuesday, the Daily Mail published reports that Porter had abused his two ex-wives. The White House rushed to his defense, with the press secretary calling him “someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character.” But the White House in fact knew about the allegations as early as March, and the full FBI background for his security clearance was finished in July. The next day, The Intercept published photos of the abuse. That day, the White House announced his resignation. By Wednesday night, chief of staff John Kelly issued a statement claiming to be “shocked by these new allegations” that he’d known about for months. On Friday, Trump made his first statement on the subject, saying, “He said very strongly yesterday that he's innocent, so you'll have to talk to him about that, but we absolutely wish him well, he did a very good job when he was at the White House." On Saturday he not-so-obliquely defended Porter on Twitter. By Sunday, the administration was telling reporters that the White House hadn’t received a final investigation when Porter resigned; it had.
  • CNN on why this scandal is still a thing: “When White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigned last Wednesday, a day after domestic violence accusations against him became public, it felt like the beginning and end of yet another brief and ugly Trump era administrative flop. Yet here we are, one week later, and the controversy surrounding Porter's tenure is not only alive—it's also multiplying. … From Trump to Kelly and the administration's top talkers, there has been a consistent unwillingness to own up in a meaningful way to anything more than a communications flub. … [Trump’s] reaction to the allegations against Porter, combined with proliferating reports about the lengths to which his staff went to protect the staff secretary, creates a familiar analog. The target of his Saturday tweet—Porter's accusers? Steve Wynn’s?—was then and remains unclear. But there was no mistaking his message. ‘Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation,’ Trump said. ‘Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused—life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?’”
  • The latest development is that FBI director Christopher Wray has directly contradicted the White House’s account of who knew what when. From WaPo: “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.”
  • “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. … 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.’”
  • “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 bullshit detector’ and had long detected troubling characteristics in Porter. But Kelly initially defended Porter last week as ‘a man of true integrity and honor.’”
  • In fact, as CNN reported, Kelly was considering promoting Porter despite knowing about the allegations.
  • All the while, Porter was handling highly classified material under a temporary security clearance, as he couldn’t obtain a permanent one. Last fall, the administration said it would no longer grant interim security clearances, though those who had them could keep them [Politico].

WHAT IT MEANS: The story kept developing because the White House kept lying, and those lies kept being revealed. Strip it all away and here are the bare facts: the White House knew it had a credibly accused domestic abuser working in its highest levels and, though he couldn’t get a permanent security clearance, didn’t do anything about it and then lied about what it knew. In any sensible operation, heads would roll in service of cleaning up a PR disaster. In the Trump White House, who knows.

Related: Trump lawyer Michael Cohen says he paid $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels weeks before the election out of his own funds, separate from the campaign. “‘Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly,’ Mr. Cohen said in a statement to The New York Times. ‘The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.’” [NYT]
  • I’m not a lawyer, but I can’t quite squint hard enough to see how this payment—to make a potential scandal go away during an election—doesn’t count as an in-kind donation that should have been (but isn’t) disclosed in finance records. What’s more—and the lawyers out there can correct me if I’m wrong (jbillman@indyweek.com)—isn’t there some sort of prohibition against lawyers spending their own money for their clients’ benefit?

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