Updated at 4:19 p.m. | Staff Secretary Rob Porter has officially left the White House after allegations from his two ex-wives that he punched and kicked — and otherwise abused — them.
Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah made the announcement during yet another remarkable press briefing that started nearly three hours after its original 1 p.m. start-time following several delays.
“His last day was yesterday,” Shah said. “I know he came in today to clean out his stuff.”
Shah called the assault allegations “serious and disturbing,” ramping up the White House’s reaction after defending Porter much of Wednesday.
“They’re upsetting,” Shah said.
He described the allegations as still being reviewed as part of an extensive background check process that Porter was still in the midst of when reports made the charges public this week.
Asked what caused the White House to change its tone on Porter, Shah replied the images of one of Porter’s ex-wives’ black eye were “upsetting.”
He declined to say whether Chief of Staff John Kelly knew about the allegations long before the reports were published.
President Donald Trump was “saddened” by the allegations against Porter and the images of one of his ex-wives with a black eye she said Porter gave her, Shah said. The administration takes violence against women “very seriously,” he added when asked why the White House closed a government office focused on that subject after it took office.
One issue that became part of the debate over Porter’s tenure was whether he ever dealt with classified information if he was unable to get a security clearance.
Shah, making his debut at the briefing room podium, also disclosed that Porter did handle classified information even though his security clearance background check had not yet been completed. The now-former White House employee had an interim clearance, Shah added.
White House officials did not answer inquiries from reporters, including one from Roll Call Wednesday evening, about why Communications Director Hope Hicks, Rob Porter’s new girlfriend, was involved in coordinating the response. Shah the next day said Hicks recused herself from “some” internal deliberations over how to handle the abuse allegations, Shah said. He declined to elaborate.
Notably, Shah did acknowledge White House officials made missteps in their response.
Porter had intended to remain in his post, a sort of gatekeeper to the Oval Office, until a replacement had been named and trained. But after over 24 hours of White House officials bungling their response to Daily Mail and The Intercept reports, Porter was forced out.
The allegations came via on-the-record interviews the women gave to The Daily Mail and to The Intercept, which published photographs of Colbie Holderness, now 37, with a black eye she said Porter gave her during a vacation in the mid-2000s.
Kelly and Porter had grown close since the retired Marine Corps general joined the White House in August. Kelly is under fire for knowing about the allegations for some time but doing nothing, then spending most of Wednesday defending Porter.
In a statement to the Daily Mail, Kelly touted Porter’s integrity and called him honorable. Later, the White House said Kelly and President Donald Trump had “full confidence” in the 40-year-old Rhodes Scholar’s ability and job performance.
On Thursday, Shah said the chief of staff had not yet seen the images when the first statement was provided to the Daily Mail.
It wasn’t until around 9:30 p.m. Wednesday night that the White House issued yet another statement in which Kelly — but not the president — said he was “shocked by the new allegations.”
Still, Kelly said in the statement that he stands by his previous defenses of Porter. And the late-night statement marked the first time any senior White House official uttered any public statement condemning domestic violence.
Kelly’s repeated defenses of Porter and his allowing Hicks, Porter’s girlfriend, to craft the Thursday statements has again made the chief of staff a lightning rod for Democrats.
Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington called Kelly’s role in keeping Porter on as a White House staffer even after learning of the allegations “very, very disturbing.”
“Clearly, WH Chief of Staff John Kelly knew about Rob Porter’s history of abuse directly from FBI and chose to ignore it,” Jayapal tweeted Thursday morning. “#MeToo is as much about those who protect the abusers with their silence as the abusers themselves.”
As of Thursday morning, however, the president himself had not done so. Following remarks in the morning at the National Prayer Breakfast, his schedule includes no more public events, meaning reporters will not have the chance to ask him about the Porter allegations and how his staff handled the fallout.
Griffin Connolly contributed to this report.