The White House’s defense of how it handled Rob Porter—the former staff secretary who was axed after it came to light that two ex-wives alleged he physically abused them—wasn’t built to last. Over the course of the last week, administration officials have steadfastly argued that they—and particularly embattled Chief-of-Staff John Kelly—acted quickly and decisively when presented with evidence of Porter’s abuse. Sympathetic talking heads made the rounds on cable news and the Sunday shows arguing that, before being shown the door, Porter was initially given the benefit of the doubt—and isn’t that what you would do if your cameraman were accused of something heinous, a doe-eyed Mick Mulvaney asked both Chris Wallace and Major Garrett.
It’s a simple exculpatory narrative: The White House responded to allegations of abuse the way any responsible employer would. Even the delay in firing Porter is given a sympathetic sheen—Porter had been a reliable and respected member of their team and Kelly didn’t want to dump him over an unverified allegation. Then, when it was clear that Porter had deceived them about his past relationships, he was immediately fired.
The problem, as has been made clear repeatedly over the past several days, is that this narrative is clearly not accurate. We’ve since learned that the Trump administration arranged an off-the-record briefing with four journalists just hours after The Daily Mail published photographs of one of Porter’s ex-wives with a black eye. We’ve learned that not only did the FBI complete a background check of Porter—something that last Thursday Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah said hadn’t happened—but that the administration was presented with the allegations against Porter months ago. Despite this, we’ve also learned that Porter was up for a promotion at the time of his firing.
The White House’s story was easily debunked—and yet they’ve stuck to it, even as more contradictory evidence emerges. All of this has created a kind of ur-scandal for the Trump White House, one that encompasses the administration’s singular ability to shoot itself in the foot while simultaneously highlighting a host of other Trumpian vices, all while relentlessly sticking with an obvious lie.
What little credibility the official White House line may have had on the matter evaporated on Tuesday when FBI Director Christopher Wray addressed the Senate Intelligence Committee. Asked by Senator Ron Wyden about the agency’s handling of Porter’s background check, Wray informed the committee that the FBI submitted a partial report in March and had initially concluded its look into Porter in July of last year—follow-ups were then done in November and January.
Addressing reporters after Wray’s testimony, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insisted that the White House wasn’t lying at all. What Shah had meant to say wasn’t that Porter’s FBI background check wasn’t completed, but that the White House’s wasn’t. While the “FBI portion was closed, the White House personnel security office, who is the one to make the recommendation for adjudication, was not finished with their process; therefore, they did not make a recommendation to the White House,” Sanders said.
This explanation doesn’t hold water, given that it is now abundantly clear that the White House was aware of the allegations against Porter well before last week. Furthermore, Porter was operating in a senior role on an interim—that is, not permanent—security clearance, which should have served as a waving red flag to his colleagues, including Kelly and Trump, that something was up. Added together with the White House’s inconsistent narrative of events, the fact that Porter himself has said that he gave Kelly a “full picture” of what would be in The Daily Mail story, and reports alleging that senior administration officials urged Porter not to resign but to “stay and fight,” and you have a pretty convincing portrait of a botched cover-up.
There are still a number of unanswered questions about the White House’s response to the allegations against Porter. It’s not clear, for instance, if Porter was fired or if he resigned. It’s not entirely clear when Kelly actually found out about the allegations, though it’s now obvious that whenever he did, it was months ago. But if that’s true, Kelly has yet to explain why he failed to act or why he said he was “shocked” in the wake of The Daily Mail’s story. Similarly, it’s not clear why that of all things was the final straw; given the accusations against him, Porter would clearly be a blackmail risk for any administration.
Over the next few days, many of these questions will be answered, as will the question of Kelly’s future in the White House—reportedly “isolated” in the West Wing, it seems unlikely that he will survive the week. Kelly was brought in to impose order on a chaotic White House, but he has clearly failed in this primary responsibility—while the president continues to hate-tweet over Big Macs, Kelly has lied about the comments of a sitting U.S. representative, called immigrants who didn’t sign up for DACA lazy, and in the case of the Porter scandal, failed to take action on a cut-and-dry situation. Kelly had months to remove Porter from his position, the only obvious action to take. There were, moreover, numerous arguments for doing so—not only were the allegations against Porter heinous, but they clearly presented a national security risk. As with nearly all scandals in Trumpland, this one was almost entirely of the administration’s own making.
Indeed, with Porter, the White House has a scandal that neatly encompasses nearly all of its most significant flaws. You see the White House’s incompetence and the president’s insistence on fighting back against every bit of criticism, no matter how deserved. You see Trump’s misogyny and his steadfast refusal to believe women. And you see a White House that is singularly obsessed with loyalty—all that seemed to matter, in the case of Porter, was that he showed ardent allegiance to the president.
And then there’s the tendency to cover-up. In nearly all of its scandals, the White House has adopted the same strategy: Stick to an implausible denial even as contradictory evidence mounts until the press and the public move on to the next thing. In the past, this has worked well enough. But the Porter story has stuck around longer than most of the many other scandals that have embroiled the Trump White House. The White House’s flimsy story is falling apart, exposing the dysfunctional, immoral underbelly of the administration that Kelly was ostensibly brought in to clean up. Perhaps there’s at least one norm even Trump can’t upend: It’s not the crime; it’s the cover-up.