/

White House and FBI differ in accounts of aide’s background investigation

AP, AFP-JIJI

Contradicting the White House, the FBI said it gave the Trump administration information on multiple occasions last year about a top aide accused of domestic abuse by his two ex-wives, and that the investigation wrapped up in January.

That account by FBI Director Christopher Wray challenged an earlier assertion by the White House that Rob Porter’s background “investigation was ongoing,” and that officials first learned the extent of accusations against him only last week — just before he abruptly resigned.

Wray’s testimony on Tuesday marked the latest development in a scandal that has called into question the judgment of senior members of White House staff, put new stress on the administration’s already strained credibility with the public, and drawn accusations of tone-deaf handling of the abuse allegations.

The weeklong fallout from the allegations against Porter, President Donald Trump’s staff secretary, has thrown the West Wing into chaos not seen since the earliest months of the administration and has sparked new rounds of recriminations inside the White House.

Privately, officials acknowledge that the public timeline offered last week — that the administration first learned of the ex-wives’ charges against Porter last Tuesday — was flawed at best.

Several senior officials, including chief of staff John Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn, had been aware of the broad allegations against Porter for months, officials said.

Kelly found out after requesting an update on the large number of senior staffers operating without full security clearances, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions. McGahn told Kelly last fall that there was concern about information in the background investigation involving Porter’s ex-wives, the official said, and Kelly expressed surprise that Porter had previously been married.

Despite that, Porter took on an increasingly central role in the West Wing and was under consideration to serve as Trump’s deputy chief of staff, two officials said.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday, “The White House had not received any specific papers regarding the completion of that background check.” Yet Wray testified that the FBI sent the White House its preliminary report in March 2017 and its completed investigation in late July. Soon after that, the agency received a request for a follow-up inquiry, and it provided that information in November. Porter was interviewed about the allegations in September, an official said.

“And then we administratively closed the file in January, and then earlier this month we received some additional information and we passed that on as well,” Wray added in his congressional testimony Tuesday, without elaboration.

The FBI does not make recommendations about whether to grant or deny a security clearance, officials said, leaving the determination up to the employee’s agency — in Porter’s case, the White House.

Sanders maintained Tuesday that her statement about an ongoing investigation was accurate because Porter’s clearance hadn’t received a final sign-off from the White House Office of Personnel Security.

“We find those statements to be consistent with one another,” she said.

The White House has refused to divulge the number of staff members who still do not have full clearances, though the list includes Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law. Kushner’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, said in a statement that “there are a dozen or more people at Mr. Kushner’s level” who are working without full security clearances.

A senior administration official said as many as two dozen senior officials don’t hold permanent clearances. The official wasn’t authorized to discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Also Tuesday, Trump’s intelligence chief called for top-to-bottom reform of the security clearance process that allowed Porter to operate in his job for more than a year with only an interim clearance.

“We have a broken system and I think everybody’s come to agree with that now,” said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. He called for limits on the information made accessible to those with temporary clearances — a practice that is currently not followed in the West Wing, an official said.

Separately, the Trump administration found itself further enmeshed in another scandal after the president’s personal lawyer told The New York Times on Tuesday that he paid $130,000 of his own money to a porn star who once said she had an affair with Trump.

The attorney, Michael Cohen, said that he was not reimbursed for the payment to the actress, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford and goes by Stormy Daniels, the Times said.

Cohen told the newspaper the payment was legal, and he declined to give details such as why he made it.

“Neither the Trump Organization nor the Trump campaign was a party to the transaction with Ms. Clifford, and neither reimbursed me for the payment, either directly or indirectly,” Cohen said, according to the Times.

“The payment to Ms. Clifford was lawful, and was not a campaign contribution or a campaign expenditure by anyone.”

U.S. media reports have said the payment was made one month before the November 2016 election to keep the liaison quiet.