White House spokesman Raj Shah said Thursday that the White House “could have done better” over the last few days when it came to “dealing with” the domestic violence allegations against former top aide Rob Porter.
But Shah also repeatedly declined to get into specifics about how much the White House knew last year about the allegations against Porter. The White House spokesman also claimed that a photo of one of Porter’s ex-wives with a black eye published Wednesday changed the conversation inside the West Wing but failed to explain why the administration – namely chief of staff John Kelly – needed to see images to believe the accusers.
“I think it’s fair to say we all could have done better dealing with this over the last few days,” Shah said.
The admission of fault after a chaotic 48-hours in which senior Trump aides looked to inoculate the White House from a domestic violence controversy was a stunning turn for an administration whose top officials – including the President – rarely admit mistakes.
Senior aides to President Donald Trump knew for months about allegations of domestic abuse levied against Porter by his ex-wives, even as Porter’s stock in the West Wing continued to rise, multiple sources told CNN on Wednesday. Porter’s ex-wives detailed the allegations to the FBI over the course of a routine background check, they told CNN’s MJ Lee.
By early fall, it was widely known among Trump’s top aides – including chief of staff John Kelly – both that Porter was facing troubles in obtaining the clearance and that his ex-wives claimed he had abused them. No action was taken to remove him from the staff.
Shah said multiple senior White House officials had a hand in writing glowing statements about Porter on Tuesday evening, including one from Kelly that said Porter had “true integrity and honor.”
The White House spokesman, who was making his debut at the White House briefing podium on Thursday, would not say whether Kelly knew aspects of the allegations before Tuesday, but multiple sources have told CNN that Kelly was among the aides who knew about Porter’s issues with gaining a security clearance because of the allegations.
“He became fully aware of these allegations yesterday,” Shah said of Kelly, later adding that he had “not seen images prior to the statement on Tuesday night.”
But Colbie Holderness, one of Porter’s ex-wives, told CNN that she told the FBI in January of 2017 about when Porter punched her and she shared the photos with the FBI during an interview about Porter’s clearance.
Porter was “operating on an interim security clearance” but his clearance was never “denied,” Shah said.
The spokesman added that the allegations are “serious and disturbing,” but he repeatedly noted that Porter denied wrongdoing.
“It is important to remember that Rob Porter has repeatedly denied these allegations and done so publicly. That doesn’t change how serious and disturbing these allegations are. They are upsetting,” Shah said. “The investigation does not stop when allegations come to light, it continues to determine the truth.”
Asked how the White House weighed Porter’s denials, Shah said that they felt “you have got to take allegations seriously, you have got to take denials seriously.”
The Porter fallout has proved another uncomfortable situation for a White House that has been largely out of step with the #MeToo movement that has swept the country, putting a focus on sexual assault, harassment and workplace abuses.
During the election, at least 15 women accused Trump of behaviors ranging from sexual harassment and sexual assault to lewd behavior around women. Trump and his aides have dismissed the allegations because the President has denied all of them.
Trump first learned of the allegations against Porter on Tuesday ahead of the first story on the domestic abuse, Shah said.
The President was “surprised,” “disheartened” and “saddened” by the allegations Shah said, but did not see Porter as someone who could be guilty of such abuse.
“He, like many of us, did not see that in Rob Porter, did not see what these allegations have brought forward,” Shah said.