WASHINGTON – The White House struggled Tuesday to contain a widening crisis over its handling of domestic violence allegations against a senior official, as it reeled from sworn testimony by the FBI chief that directly contradicted what President Trump's aides had presented as the official version of events.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the agency completed a background report on then-staff secretary Rob Porter last July and closed out the case entirely last month. Wray's account is at odds with White House claims that the investigation required for Porter's security clearance was "ongoing" until he left his job last week after his two ex-wives publicly alleged physical and emotional abuse.
The latest bout of turbulence is exacerbated by the administration's reputation, earned over 13 chaotic months, for both flouting institutional norms and misrepresenting facts to the public – a culture set by the president himself.
The public relations fallout is further compounded by Trump's own history of alleged sexual assault and his seeming reluctance to publicly condemn violence against women and give voice to the national #MeToo reckoning.
Trump has said little publicly about the Porter issue other than to praise the former aide for doing "a very good job." But he has privately expressed frustration with the week-long fallout, peppering aides and confidants with questions about the media coverage and how the controversy is playing for him personally.
The Porter drama has become all-consuming, creating an atmosphere of chaos and infighting reminiscent of the Game of Thrones stage early in Trump's presidency – and distracting from the administration's budget and infrastructure agenda.
Inside the West Wing, a growing number of aides blamed Trump's second White House chief of staff, John Kelly, for the bungled handling of allegations against Porter, who left his job last week. Trump in recent days has begun musing about possible replacements, according to people with knowledge of the conversations.
Asked by a reporter to assess Kelly's standing with Trump after a week of troubling revelations, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that "the president has confidence in his chief of staff."
But Kelly does not enjoy the confidence of an increasing number of his subordinates, some of whom said they believe the retired four-star Marine Corps general has misled them.
Kelly is "a big fat liar," said one White House official, who demanded anonymity to share a candid opinion. "To put it in terms the general would understand, his handling of the Porter scandal amounts to dereliction of duty."
This portrait of the West Wing in turmoil is based on interviews with more than a dozen top White House officials and outside advisers and confidants, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.
Kelly's attempts at explaining his role, according to some aides, have included telling senior staff last Friday to communicate a version of events many believed to be false as well as telling at least one confidant that he has "a good bull– detector" and had long detected troubling characteristics in Porter.
But Kelly initially defended Porter last week as "a man of true integrity and honor." And in recent weeks, Kelly was even considering giving Porter an expanded role in policy development, a potential promotion first reported by CNN.
The internal animus is not limited to Kelly. Both White House counsel Donald McGahn and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin are also facing scrutiny over how Porter managed to work at the White House – and hold an interim security clearance – for more than a year despite the allegations of abuse during his two marriages.
On Tuesday, Wray contradicted the White House's account of when the bureau informed officials about the status of Porter's security-clearance investigation.
White House officials had said that they were first contacted in the summer by the FBI about Porter's clearance, and that the investigation as of last week was still "ongoing" and had not been completed.
But Wray, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the FBI submitted a partial report on his clearance last March and that the investigation was completed last July. Soon after, he added, the FBI received a request for a follow-up, which the bureau completed and provided last November.
The FBI closed the file in January, and when it received additional information earlier this month, "we passed it on as well," Wray said.
At the White House, Sanders sought to square the conflicting timelines, arguing that even after the FBI closed its investigation, the presidential personnel office was still reviewing Porter's case when he resigned last week.
"Clearly things happened after the FBI delivered this information to the White House that resulted in Porter's case just pending for an extended period of time in the personnel office," said Ron Klain, a senior White House aide in the last two Democratic administrations. "It was a deliberate decision to let him stay at the White House with this hanging over his head."
The fallout has left Kelly with diminished internal support, and spawned intensified threats from those who hope to use the controversy to force him from his job.
Several Kelly antagonists have sought to fan speculation that his position may be in imminent danger, noting that Trump has been seeking counsel from friends about who he might bring on as a new chief of staff. Trump has floated replacing Kelly with either Gary Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council, or House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) – though Trump has often sounded out friends about personnel changes that he ultimately does not make.
Nonetheless, one foe described Kelly as "well done," while another said he was in "big league" trouble.
Anthony Scaramucci, who served as White House communications director for 10 days last summer until Kelly fired him, tweeted, "Kelly must resign." He continued: "Domestic abuse is a red line. Covering up for it is indefensible."
Some White House officials, who until recently spoke of Kelly with reverence, have found ways to distance themselves from their boss, including by refusing to personally vouch for his credibility.
For the past two days, Sanders has acknowledged that the White House could have handled the Porter situation better, as sentiment first offered last week by her deputy, Raj Shah, and echoed by Vice President Pence. But Kelly, in comments to the Wall Street Journal on Monday, said, "It was all done right."
Some of Kelly's colleagues offered a more innocuous explanation for Kelly's missteps; one senior White House official suggested he may simply have been "forgetful or inartful," rather than deliberately mendacious.
On Tuesday, Sanders parried a number of sharp questions from reporters, offering only vague responses. She said at one point that her answers could only be as fulsome as the information she had been provided by her superiors – remarks widely interpreted as an attempt to distance herself from Kelly.
"Obviously the press team's not going to be as read-in, maybe, as some other elements at a given moment on a variety of topics," Sanders said. "But we relay the best and most accurate information that we have, and we get those from those individuals."
Inside the building, officials privately griped that Kelly and McGahn could have better managed the crisis by admitting mistakes, promising to overhaul the security clearance process and protecting the president.
Instead, these people said, Kelly seemed to shirk blame, grumbling to at least one confidant that the communications office should be held partly responsible. In internal conversations, Kelly sounded defensive and complained that the media was overhyping the story, according to a senior White House official who spoke with him.
But not all of Kelly's team shared his view. During Wray's testimony, another White House aide texted a Washington Post reporter, describing the moment as "a killer."
When asked if Kelly could have been more transparent or truthful, that official wrote, "In this White House, it's simply not in our DNA. Truthful and transparent is great, but we don't even have a coherent strategy to obfuscate."
Several White House aides described themselves as initially caught off guard by the allegations against Porter, a Rhodes Scholar with two degrees from Harvard who had established himself as a professional and competent force inside the West Wing.
But as photos emerged showing his first ex-wife with a black eye – and as they listened to his explanation that some found implausible – some officials said they became convinced that the two women were telling the truth.