Raj Shah didn’t have an easy job on Thursday.
The deputy White House press secretary had to hold his first press briefing following the resignation of White House staff secretary Rob Porter over domestic abuse allegations.
But even by those lowered standards, it didn’t go well. At all.
Before I get into why, let me praise Shah. “I think it’s fair to say we all could have done better dealing with this over the last few days,” he acknowledged regarding the White House response to the Porter situation. Amen. A little candor goes a long way. And, reminder: He was in an impossible situation.
Now on to the less good – in no particular order:
1. Shah said that Porter had been “terminated” on Wednesday.
But that’s not at all what happened! Porter offered his resignation – and it was accepted. Of course, that came after White House chief of staff John Kelly repeatedly urged Porter to stay on even after it became very, very clear the seriousness of the allegations against the staff secretary.
2. Shah tried to argue that because Porter hadn’t allegedly hit any of the women during his time in the White House, it was more an issue for the background check people to deal with.
“The allegations made against Rob Porter, as we understand them, involve incidents long before he joined the White House,” said Shah. “Therefore they are best evaluated through the background check process.”
President Donald Trump famously promised he would bring the “best” people with him to Washington. Being the best people doesn’t start when you formally begin working in the White House. It is the job of the White House to ensure that the people working in the building – especially one with such direct access to the President – meet a certain standard of conduct. And have met a certain standard of conduct.
3. In explaining the radical difference between Kelly’s hugely supportive statement of Porter on Tuesday night and his less supportive one on Wednesday, Shah said the chief of staff became “fully” aware of the allegations.
But according to CNN’s reporting, Kelly had known for months about the allegations. The ONLY thing that changed was that a picture of one of Porter’s ex-wives with a massive black eye went public. Which raises the question: Did Kelly only change his total defense of Porter when the picture made clear it couldn’t be effectively sustained?
4. Shah painted Kelly as totally unaware that the FBI had been told by both of Porter’s ex-wives that he had abused them.
How is that possible? Did he simply not think to ask? Why not – especially given that Porter still didn’t have a security clearance after more than a year in the White House? And double why not – because Porter was interacting so closely with Trump day in and day out?
5. Shah said that communications director Hope Hicks, who has been dating Porter, had “recused” herself from some conversations about the situation.
But, we know – again thanks to CNN reporting – that Hicks was one of a handful of people involved in the crafting of Kelly’s first – and hugely supportive – statement on Porter. That no one stepped in and told Hicks she simply shouldn’t (and couldn’t) be involved boggles my mind.
6. This line: “I think you have got to take allegations seriously, you have got to take denials seriously.”
Here’s the thing: BOTH of Porter’s ex-wives told the FBI that he had abused them. Both women had their stories confirmed by people with whom they shared the details contemporaneously. And a third woman who had dated Porter contacted his two ex-wives in 2016 detailing further abuse. Also, the picture. The black eye. The total lack of an explanation by Porter. (He has denied the black eye picture came about as the result of any abuse. But he has offered zero explanation for why it did happen.)
At some point, the number of allegations, the depth of details and the similarities between the women make this more than a “he said-she said” conversation. And that point was a while ago when the two women talked to the FBI.
The Point: Holy cow. Not good. The whole thing left more questions than answers. And the press shouldn’t stop asking them.