The White House acknowledged on Thursday that it mishandled a burgeoning controversy over a senior official who has been accused of domestic abuse.
White House chief of staff John Kelly and other officials initially defended staff secretary Rob Porter after multiple media reports surfaced in which his ex-wives accused him of physically assaulting them.
Despite the allegations, Kelly and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders heaped praise on Porter.
On Thursday, deputy press secretary Raj Shah, making his debut appearance at the daily press briefing, said the White House “could have done better” in handling the situation.
“We all could have done better over the last few hours, the last few days, in dealing with this … but the emerging reports were not reflective of the individual we have come to know,” Shah said.
Shah attributed the initial, forceful support for Porter as based on incomplete information, and said things changed as a complete picture of Porter’s actions became more clear — including the release of photos of his first wife with a black eye. Shah said Kelly had not seen the pictures before they were released online but would not say when senior White House officials became aware of the allegations.
Kelly issued a second statement late Wednesday night saying he was “shocked” by the new allegations but stood by his initial praise of Porter and insisted that he should have an opportunity to defend himself.
Porter has resigned and his last day was Wednesday, the White House said.
Porter has denied that he physically assaulted the women, calling the allegations “vile” and “false” and a “smear campaign” against him.
“It’s important to remember that Rob Porter has repeatedly denied the allegations and has done so publicly,” Shah said. “That doesn’t change how serious and disturbing these allegations are. They’re upsetting.”
Shah, who was filling in for Sanders, acknowledged that many people at the White House were close with Porter and that they may have had trouble accepting the allegations against him.
He said that the president was “surprised, disheartened and saddened” and that “like many of us, he did not see that in Rob Porter.”
White House communications director Hope Hicks is romantically involved with Porter and insiders have told The Hill that she was involved with crafting the White House’s initial defense of him.
However, Shah said Thursday that Hicks had recused herself from “some matters.” He said “a number of senior White House officials” crafted the initial White House response.
As staff secretary, Porter would be responsible for the flow of information to Trump’s desk, including the review and handling of sensitive information.
Democrats are demanding an investigation into how Porter received a security clearance after an FBI background check would have produced a number of red flags about him.
Shah said that Porter — who has been at the White House for more than a year — was still operating on an interim security clearance because his background check had not been completed.
Shah said that investigation was still ongoing because Porter has denied the charges against him and investigators must weigh both the allegations and the denial.
“During his time at the White House, Rob received no waivers and no special treatment and this is the tried and true process,” Shah said. “It was followed meticulously.”