The White House declined on Monday to answer key questions about how it handled spousal abuse allegations against a former top aide, including which of President Donald Trump’s advisers knew about the violence claims before they were made public.
Also left unanswered: whether Trump himself believes the women who have accused former staff secretary Rob Porter of emotionally and physically battering them during their marriages to him.
As the controversy stretches into a new week, the unresolved details only furthered the impression of an administration in damage control mode. People inside the West Wing have described a workplace in tumult, with aides and officials openly questioning whether more could have been done earlier to prevent an embarrassing set of missteps last week, including a series of glowing statements about Porter from top presidential advisers.
Speaking during the White House briefing on Monday, press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted that top aides to Trump did not know the “extent” of the allegations against Porter until last Tuesday evening, when they were first reported in the Daily Mail.
Reading a statement she said had been dictated to her by the President himself, Sanders sought to tamp down accusations that Trump has downplayed abuse claims.
“The President and the entire administration take domestic violence very seriously and believe all allegations need to be investigated thoroughly,” Sanders said. “Above all, the President supports victims of domestic violence and believes everyone should be treated fairly and with due process.”
Trump has repeatedly declined to speak out against domestic violence, either in person or on his Twitter feed. He praised Porter’s integrity from the Oval Office on Friday, and wrote over the weekend that allegations not investigated through “due process” could ruin a person’s career. He did not respond to shouted questions about the matter during an infrastructure meeting on Monday.
Several White House officials have expressed confusion over the President’s conflicting remarks on the domestic abuse allegations. Despite top aides making television appearances Sunday to defend the White House’s response to the allegations, other officials have questioned how the President can go from reportedly calling Porter “a sick puppy” in private to being defensive of him and dismissive of the allegations in public.
Sanders brushed off questions about Trump’s own feelings about domestic violence, noting that he had “literally dictated” the statement she read during her briefing.
And she declined to provide any further details about which White House aides knew about the abuse claims, which Porter’s ex-wives detailed to the FBI as they were investigating his background for a security clearance.
CNN and others have reported that White House counsel Don McGahn was aware a year ago that Porter’s ex-wives could present damaging information about him during their FBI interviews. Over the past 12 months, he and other White House officials learned more of the details.
Chief of staff John Kelly, who staunchly defended Porter in the immediate wake of the claims, learned in November that potentially damaging information about Porter could emerge, multiple officials have told CNN.
Trump has become frustrated with Kelly for allowing the allegations to mushroom, people familiar with the matter have said, but there is little evidence to indicate he’s planning to dismiss him. Trump has, however, queried his roster of friends and outside advisers about potential replacements for his chief of staff.
Questions about the scandal largely drowned out the White House’s intended subject matter Monday: the President’s new budget proposal and a long-awaited plan to overhaul the nation’s infrastructure. One of the men speculated about as a potential replacement for Kelly, budget chief Mick Mulvaney, had appeared on Sunday shows this weekend and briefed reporters about the budget blueprint.
Inside the White House, Kelly and McGahn have defended themselves by claiming Porter misled them about the extent and nature of the claims. And on Monday, Sanders said the FBI’s background check investigation into Porter hadn’t been completed before the abuse allegations became public.
The press secretary, who was absent from the briefing room at the end of last week on a long-planned vacation, fielded questions for more than 20 minutes about the Porter matter. She conceded the White House could have handled it better.
“We’re looking at that internally and agree there are things that we could have done better,” Sanders said when asked whether the White House would change anything in how it handled the situation.
She said the White House would “continue to look at the process” to identify areas to improve.
“Every day we come to work and hope to do a better job than the day before,” she said. “As we recognized last week, there were some things we could have done better.”
CNN’s Kaitlan Collins contributed to this report.