WASHINGTON — The White House “could have done better” in responding to the domestic violence allegations confronting an ex-top aide to President Donald Trump, said deputy press secretary Raj Shah on Thursday.
A day after White House officials defended the character of former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, calling him “a man of true integrity and honor” following media reports that he physically and verbally abused his two ex-wives, Shah distanced the administration from those endorsements. He told reporters that officials, including White House chief of staff John Kelly, had not seen published photos of one of Porter’s exes with a black eye before publicly supporting him.
“We do take violence against women and these types of allegations very seriously,” Shah said at Thursday’s White House media briefing.
Porter, 40, resigned from his post Wednesday with a statement that denied the abuse allegations. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday afternoon said Porter would stay on for an undetermined amount of time to ensure a smooth transition, but hours later, amid a growing backlash, Kelly issued a statement saying Porter’s exit would be “swift.”
Shah said Porter’s last day was Wednesday.
The accelerated departure came amid mounting criticism over the White House’s decision to back Porter in the wake of news reports about the alleged assaults. Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, provided media outlets with a photo of a black eye she said was the result of Porter punching her in the face during a trip to Florence, Italy, in 2005. Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, provided reporters with a protective order she filed with authorities in June 2010, when she alleged Porter violated their separation agreement and refused to leave her apartment, punching through glass on her door.
Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) was among several lawmakers who criticized the Trump administration’s decision to not immediately terminate Porter from a position that gave him access to the president and sensitive documents.
“If you want to serve the public, particularly as a member of a president’s staff, I don’t care who you are, even if you’re a Rhodes Scholar,” Kennedy told CNN. “You can’t beat the hell out of your spouse. It’s wrong.”
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-Cold Spring), who held Porter’s job under former President Bill Clinton, questioned why Porter was allowed to serve as staff secretary without obtaining a security clearance from federal authorities. Maloney, a Hudson Valley lawmaker, called for a congressional investigation into the matter.
“I’m shocked that someone with that kind of background could have held this position for over a year,” Maloney said in a statement. “As someone who has served as staff secretary, I know the kind of sensitive national security information you’re exposed to, and it’s absolutely unacceptable that someone so easily compromised would only now be stepping down.”
Shah told reporters Porter had been issued a provisional security clearance because his background check was ongoing, adding that White House officials were not “fully aware” of the extent of the allegations until media reports started to surface on Tuesday.
Trump was “disheartened” and “surprised” by the reports, Shah said, adding that the president, like “many” White House staffers, “did not see that in Rob Porter.”
Earlier in the day, Trump addressed the 66th annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, telling the gathering of more than 3,800 elected officials and religious leaders on hand: “America is a nation of believers and together we are strengthened by the power of prayer.”