John Kelly, President Donald Trump’s chief of staff, on Friday again shifted the White House version of events surrounding the resignation of a former senior staffer accused of domestic abuse by his ex-wives.
On Feb. 7, the White House announced then-Staff Secretary Rob Porter had resigned after the allegations, including an image of his first wife with a black eye she says he gave her in the early 2000s. That followed several statements in which Kelly defended Porter, with whom he had grown close since joining the White house in August.
Kelly told reporters Friday that he first learned about “red flags” about Porter on Feb. 6 when a reporter asked Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders about allegations from his first ex-wife about a “messy divorce” and “some level of emotional abuse.”
“That’s how I found out,” he said.
“That was, I want to say, 5 o’clock in the afternoon,” Kelly contends. “I talked to Rob, I said, ‘What’s the deal?’ He denied it. He said it’s absolutely untrue.”
The chief of staff said he then headed to Capitol Hill for meetings about immigration legislation, returning to the West Wing around “6, 6:30 [p.m.]” to learn that “a second wife had made accusations and included physical abuse,.” He claims he again spoke with Porter.
“I talked to Rob and just, he resigned,” Kelly said, putting a finite timestamp on his former aide’s resignation. “That was maybe 7:30 [p.m.] on the 6th of February, about two hours after I found out [about the first allegation].”
In a statement that evening to the Daily Mail, Kelly touted Porter’s integrity and called him honorable.
Around 4 p.m. on Feb. 7, Sanders issued a statement saying Kelly and Trump had “full confidence” in Porter’s ability and job performance. At that point, there had been no resignation announcement from the White House.
At 9:31 p.m. that night, Kelly announced that Porter was out.
“I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society,” Kelly said over 24 hours after the first allegation. “I accepted his resignation earlier today, and will ensure a swift and orderly transition.”
The timestamp on that Feb. 7 statement, however, directly contradicts what the chief of staff said Friday.
“The first accusation had to do with a messy divorce but no mention of [any] type of physical abuse,” Kelly said then, describing the events of Feb. 6 following the second allegation, which included physical abuse. “Rob agreed … to resign at that point. It was a choice he made.”
Kelly also used that Feb. 7 statement to defend Porter and praise his workplace demeanor. Despite the scandal that helped return an ever-present chaos to the West Wing he was brought in to tamp down, the retired Marine Corps general continued to tout Porter on Friday.
“He conducted himself as the ultimate gentleman. I never saw him mad or abusive in anyway,” Kelly told reporters Friday.
That sounded similar to the president, who on Feb. 9 praised Porter for working “very hard” and wishing him “a wonderful career and [hoping] he will have a great career ahead of him.”
Kelly said in the Feb. 7 statement that he stood 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.
He only further muddied the waters Friday surrounding the former staff secretary’s departure by saying the internal “mix-up” came the next day (Feb. 7).
“The next day, probably around 10 or 11 o’clock [a.m.], somebody said Rob’s still in the building. My assumption was he was doing the checkout process,” Kelly said.
Then On Feb 8, Principal Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah told reporters this: “His last day was yesterday. … I know he came in today to clean out his stuff.”
Kelly also tried to deflect blame for Porter — despite being a gateway of sensitive and classified documents going to the president — not having a permanent top secret security clearance. Like Sanders did last month, Kelly on Friday blamed a little-known White House office composed of career staffers.
He contended the White House’s Personnel Security Office received an FBI determination last March that, because of the domestic abuse allegations, Porter had been disqualified from getting a clearance. Kelly and Sanders claim that office had yet to deliver to senior Trump officials its final ruling when the allegations surfaced on Feb. 6.
“They still not had evaluated his package to make a recommendation one way or the other,” according to Kelly.
Porter was among around 100 staffers working with an interim clearance when he stepped down. Kelly said Friday that he first learned of that in September.
The number was “more people than I was comfortable with,” he said. It was not, however, until Feb. 15 that he issued a memo overhauling the White House’s security clearance process and ordering the phasing out of the kind of temporary clearance Porter had.
Kelly’s repeated defenses of Porter and his allowing Communications Director Hope Hicks, Porter’s then-girlfriend, to craft some of the reaction statements again made the chief of staff a lightning rod for Democrats. (He also has come under fire from Democrats for his controversial comments about slavery and the Civil War, immigration, and his feud with Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Fla.)
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. “#MeToo is as much about those who protect the abusers with their silence as the abusers themselves.”
Other critics said his handling of the Porter scandal showed he also should have stepped down.
“I have absolutely nothing to even consider resigning over,” Kelly said Friday before admitting “we didn’t cover ourselves in glory in terms of how we handled that on Wednesday morning [Feb. 7]. It was confusing.”