Chief of staff John Kelly’s suggestion in private that he would be willing to step down if the president wanted him to reflected the degree to which the scandal surrounding Rob Porter has engulfed the White House.
WASHINGTON — John Kelly, the White House chief of staff, told officials in the West Wing on Friday that he was willing to step down over his handling of allegations of spousal abuse against Rob Porter, the staff secretary who resigned this week over the accusations, according to two officials aware of the discussions.
The officials emphasized they did not consider a resignation imminent, and that Kelly — who early in his tenure often used a threat of quitting as a way to temper President Donald Trump’s behavior — had made no formal offer. At the White House on Friday, Kelly said he had not offered to resign.
But his suggestion in private that he would be willing to step down if the president wanted him to reflected the degree to which the scandal surrounding Porter, 40, has engulfed the White House.
Two West Wing advisers and a third person painted a picture of a White House staff fractured and confused, with fingers pointed in all directions and the president privately expressing dissatisfaction with Kelly.
Some complained that Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, who learned in January 2017 that Porter was concerned about potentially damaging accusations from two ex-wives, had not been forthcoming enough about what he knew. Others faulted Hope Hicks, the communications director, who has been romantically involved with Porter, for soliciting statements of support for him when the accusations became public.
And many, including the president, have turned their ire on Kelly for vouching for Porter’s character and falsely asserting he had moved aggressively to oust him once his misdeeds were discovered.
For all the turmoil, Trump on Friday praised Porter, saying it was a “tough time” for his former aide and noting that Porter had denied the accusations.
“We wish him well,” Trump said of his former aide, who was accused of physical and emotional abuse by two ex-wives. The president added, “He also, as you probably know, says he is innocent, and I think you have to remember that.”
In the Oval Office, Trump said of Porter, “He worked very hard,” adding that he had only “recently” learned of the allegations against his former aide and was surprised.
“He did a very good job when he was in the White House, and we hope he has a wonderful career, and he will have a great career ahead of him,” Trump said. “But it was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly he’s also very sad now.”
The glowing praise of a staff member accused of serial violence against women was in line with the president’s own denials of sexual impropriety despite accusations from more than a dozen women and his habit of accepting claims of innocence from men facing similar allegations. Among them was Roy Moore, the former Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, who was accused of molesting teenage girls.
Later in the day, the White House dealt far more aggressively with another allegation of abuse. A spokesman confirmed that a second White House staff member, David Sorensen, a speechwriter, had resigned over allegations by his former wife that he had abused her during their marriage. The spokesman said officials confronted Sorensen on Thursday night when they learned of the accusations and that he had denied them.
In an interview in The Washington Post, which first reported the allegations against Sorensen and his resignation, his former wife, Jessica Corbett, detailed a volatile 2 ½-year marriage in which Sorensen ran over her foot while driving a car and put out a lit cigarette on her hand. Their divorce became final last fall. Sorensen denied Corbett’s account, and insisted that she was the abuser.
He explained his decision to resign, saying late Friday: “I didn’t want the White House to have to deal with this distraction. It should be able to focus on continuing President Trump’s historic accomplishments for the American people.”
Sorensen’s resignation came as a new timeline emerged indicating top officials knew much earlier than previously disclosed that Porter faced accusations of violence against women.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, McGahn, the White House counsel, first learned from Porter that there could be allegations against him, according to two people briefed on the situation. McGahn’s knowledge of the accusations in January was first reported by The Washington Post.
Porter told him about the possible allegations because he was concerned that what he characterized as false charges from aggrieved women could derail his FBI background check, according to one of the two people briefed on the matter.
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Six months later, the FBI told McGahn that accusations of domestic abuse had indeed surfaced in Porter’s background check. McGahn opted at that time to let the FBI complete its investigation. Porter assured McGahn, another person briefed on the matter said, that the accusations from the former wives were lies.
Lawyers in the counsel’s office believed the bureau was best positioned to look into the accusations against Porter, the two people briefed on the matter said, and that it was not their job to investigate conduct that took place long before an official began working in the administration.
That represents a break with past practice, in which White House counsels undertook elaborate vetting of senior advisers before they were hired — and looked into any serious allegations that surfaced thereafter.
In November, the White House heard back from the FBI. Senior White House officials, including Kelly; Joe Hagin, deputy chief of staff; and McGahn received word from the bureau that the allegations were credible and that Porter was not likely to pass his background check.
But while McGahn privately informed Porter and encouraged him to consider moving on, according to one of the two people briefed, no action was taken to immediately terminate him. Rather, McGahn requested the FBI complete its investigation and come back to the White House with a final recommendation, a process that could take months.
In a meeting with senior staff members Friday morning, Kelly tried to “clarify” his handling of the Porter case, saying he found out only Tuesday night that the accusations against Porter “were true.”
“Forty minutes later he was gone,” Kelly said.
The chief of staff added that the decision was made before photos of one of Porter’s ex-wives with a black eye were published.
Other White House officials have said it was the release of the photos Wednesday morning that sealed Porter’s fate. The staff secretary later Wednesday said he would resign; he left his White House job Thursday.