WASHINGTON — 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 had previously been given an indication 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 that he learned there were allegations against Porter from his ex-wives, the official said.
But when the allegations first emerged against Porter, a number of senior aides rallied around him. Kelly was Porter’s loudest defender, including in the first hours after the 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 that 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.
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.
Kelly also drew Trump’s ire last month when he seemed to suggest that the president was flip-flopping on his call for a border wall. Trump complained to aides that the chief of staff had portrayed him as a child who had to be managed, a contention that particularly irked the president in the wake of the way he was portrayed in the recent Michael Wolff book, Fire and Fury.
Democrats swiftly called for an investigation into Porter’s presence at the White House, and some suggested that Kelly was in the crosshairs.
"If John Kelly is covering this up, he needs to be held accountable," Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told CNN’s New Day, adding, "he better have a really good reason. Otherwise, he’s gone, too."
Toni Van Pelt, head of the National Organization for Women, was more direct. She revisited the accusations that Trump himself has sexually harassed women, allegations he has denied.
"White House chief of staff John Kelly must resign," Van Pelt said. "His pathetic defense of staff secretary Rob Porter reveals his true nature — an enabler of sexual abusers, a betrayer of trust and an avoider of responsibility."
The White House was also put on the defensive about Porter’s interim security clearance, fielding questions about how someone could handle some of the nation’s most sensitive documents while potentially being ripe for blackmail. In Thursday’s briefing, Shah outlined the background check procedure, which is run by the federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies and was still under way for Porter.
Attorneys who specialize in security clearance said Porter should have disclosed the allegations, including the protective order granted to one woman, when he filed his lengthy national security application. John V. Berry, who represents government employees and contractors, said the FBI would have notified the White House about the allegations but noted that the interim clearance would not have prohibited Porter from having access to sensitive information.