Pressure mounted on White House chief of staff John Kelly on Thursday as questions swirled about his defense of a senior aide he fought to keep in a highly sensitive West Wing job despite accusations of spousal abuse from two ex-wives.
White House staff secretary Rob Porter, a member of President Donald Trump’s inner circle and arguably Kelly’s closest aide, cleaned out his desk Thursday. But the aftershocks of his resignation reverberated amid concerns about his access to classified information.
Kelly himself faced criticism for defending Porter only to belatedly reverse course hours after the publication of photos showing one of the ex-wives with a black eye.
“It’s fair to say we all could have done better over the last few hours or last few days in dealing with this situation,” said White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah, who faced a barrage of questions about Kelly during a press briefing.
Though the allegations against Porter became public this week, Kelly learned last fall that something was amiss with the staff secretary’s attempts to get a security clearance, according to an administration official who insisted on anonymity to discuss internal matters.
The chief of staff had sought information about the status of security clearance applications for top aides, and it was then he learned there were allegations against Porter from his ex-wives, said the official. Porter and Kelly later discussed the allegations.
The White House official said that staffers felt misled about how Porter downplayed the allegations, both to Kelly at the end of the 2017 and to White House Counsel Don McGahn near the beginning of Trump’s term.
When the allegations first emerged against Porter, a number of senior aides rallied around him, and the White House acknowledged that personal relationships may have played a role in their response. Communications Director Hope Hicks, who was dating the staff secretary, helped draft the original statements defending him, according to three current and former White House officials.
Shah said Thursday that Hicks later “recused” herself from some aspects of the matter, but it was unclear from what. Kelly, meanwhile, was Porter’s loudest defender, including in the first hours after the graphic photos of alleged abuse emerged.
Only later did the chief of staff, who had argued for Porter to keep his post, release a second statement in which he said he supported Porter’s resignation.
Shah said Trump was not aware until Tuesday of the accusations against Porter, who was a frequent presence in the Oval Office and helped craft last week’s State of the Union address. By the time the president was fully briefed of the claims against Porter on Wednesday, the once-rising White House star had already resigned, according to the official.
A number of lawmakers criticized Kelly, and a leading women’s group called for the chief of staff to resign.
The president, for his part, has not signaled to allies that he is on the verge of making a change. But his frustration with Kelly has grown recently.