Washington (CNN)The FBI obtained photos of the bruised face of Colbie Holderness seven days after President Donald Trump's inauguration last year, according to emails obtained by CNN, raising questions about what information White House counsel Don McGahn had at his disposal regarding her ex-husband, Rob Porter.
Ex-wife's photos raise questions about McGahn's role in Porter scandal
Holderness provided the photos to the bureau as part of a security clearance background check that was being conducted into Porter. At the time, Porter was Trump's staff secretary, managing the flow of some of the most sensitive information destined for the President. But, according to the White House, the full extent of the domestic violence allegations weren't known by senior officials until last week, when pictures were published by the Daily Mail.
It's unclear if the FBI sent the photos to the White House, though a law enforcement source said the bureau would have at least provided a synopsis of what they portray. But the existence of the photos is leading law enforcement experts and officials in previous administrations to strongly question how McGahn didn't act on the domestic violence allegations, which have rocked the White House over the past week and triggered at least one congressional investigation. Like other top presidential lawyers before him, McGahn had legal staff in his office who were assigned to deal with clearance issues.
"That isn't reasonable," national security expert Mark Zaid said of the idea that McGahn only learned about the photo when it was published. "I would be surprised that if in their partial report in March, the FBI either didn't include the photo or, at a minimum, reference they had photographic evidence of the domestic assault."
He added: "And I can't fathom it not being part of the completed report" that the FBI delivered to the White House in July.
Porter, who resigned from the White House last week, has denied the allegations of domestic abuse. The FBI and White House didn't comment on questions about McGahn's knowledge.
The White House has maintained that the Trump administration followed the same policies and procedures that their predecessors have used when vetting security clearances for top officials.
"We are following the process that has been used by previous administrations," White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters Tuesday.
But under past administrations, according to sources familiar with the process, if the FBI returned a file to the White House personnel security office with a concern, the clearance lawyers inside the White House counsel's office would have been made aware and provided access to the physical file.
An official who served under the Obama administration said there was no way a file about someone as high up as Porter with an outstanding issue would not have been brought to the attention of the White House counsel.
Another former official, who was a lawyer in the Obama administration, said a file that was returned with an issue would typically trigger a suitability review by the counsel's office. If the Trump administration followed the same procedure, as they have claimed, such a search would have presumably included the emergency protective order for family abuse that Jennie Willoughby, Porter's ex-wife, filed against Porter.
"If we had allegations by a former spouse of domestic abuse, that would have been immediately disqualifying," the official said.
Porter, who obtained an interim security clearance at the outset of the Trump administration, was concerned about the background check process during his first days in the White House, a source said. He approached McGahn asking questions about the background check process and told the newly minted White House counsel that disparaging information from his ex-wives, Holderness and Willoughby, could be revealed in the process, according to a source familiar with the situation. The conversation did not include the domestic violence allegations, one source said.
Around the same time Porter was expressing concern about the background check process, Holderness provided an FBI special agent with at least eight pictures of her bruised eye, according to the emails, that she said occurred during a 2005 trip with her then-husband in Italy.
"Thanks for providing the photos," the special agent wrote on January 27.
Days later, Willoughby -- another ex-wife of Porter -- told the FBI that there were "several" incidents with Porter before she filed her protective order that "had left me feeling unsafe." The email, which was obtained by CNN, was sent on February 1, 2017.
Porter's security clearance remained an outstanding issue through the summer and fall, even as, according to FBI Director Chris Wray, the FBI provided reports in March and July to the White House. Those reports went to the White House personnel security office, according to Sanders.
But by September, according to one source, McGahn learned that domestic violence allegations against Porter were causing approval of Porter's security clearance to be delayed. Another source disputes that McGahn was made aware of the issue at that time, but Porter's background check hurdles and the allegations from his ex-wives were well-known at the time in the West Wing.
At the same time, according to an email provided to CNN, the FBI reached out to Willoughby asking her to sign a release form for an incident report from the Arlington, Virginia, police department describing an altercation. A law enforcement official said the FBI already had the incident report in its possession, but needed Willoughby's signature to release it to the White House for "not just law enforcement purposes."
Meanwhile, CNN learned Wednesday that Porter phoned Willoughby in September and said he was informed by someone working on his background check that his clearance was "delayed," in part because of concerns that he was "violent."
Sanders told reporters Tuesday she was "not aware of any communication" between the personnel security office and the West Wing, but couldn't "say definitively" there was none. She did say the personnel security office did receive "what they considered to be the final background investigation report in November."
Around Thanksgiving, McGahn was drawn further into the controversy when Porter's ex-girlfriend called the White House counsel to express concerns about Porter's romantic involvement with Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, according to a source familiar with the conversation. It's unclear whether the ex-girlfriend discussed physical abuse.
McGahn, a longtime campaign finance lawyer who served as campaign counsel for Trump's 2016 run, was named White House counsel weeks after the election. He has been able to avoid the attention that has been directed at White House chief of staff John Kelly in the wake of the domestic abuse scandal. While Kelly initially lauded Porter as a man of "true integrity and honor," McGahn has stayed silent.
Kelly, who is the subject of persistent resignation rumors, has more recently told people that he, too, felt misled by Porter and quickly secured his resignation once he learned the full extent of the allegations.
McGahn, too, has told people close to him that he felt "misled" by Porter, according to a source with knowledge of the situation. McGahn has also said he thought Porter had "snowed" those close to him. Like Porter, McGahn also worked inside the Trump administration for months with an interim security clearance, according to information obtained by CNN from a US government official on Wednesday. McGahn had been approved for permanent access to top secret information by November, but was still working off interim access to Sensitive Compartmented Information, according to the information.
McGahn has known Trump for years, a fact that sources said has helped him maintain his status inside what has long been a tumultuous West Wing with considerable turnover. During the last year, however, as the White House has grappled with controversies and the Russia investigation, their tempers have frayed at times.
There have been several times when McGahn was angry at the President, according to a source with knowledge about their relationship. For instance, several months ago, McGahn sought to make sure Trump made thoughtful choices in his pick of an outside counsel. McGahn ultimately found the selected lawyers to be less than satisfactory.
For now, it does not appear that McGahn's fate in the White House is as tenuous as that of Kelly.
And it is McGahn who is responsible for one of the rare successes during the first year of Trump: Leading the effort to reshape the federal judiciary with conservatives, starting with the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.