Trump Ally Opens House Inquiry Into Handling of Ex-Aide Porter

(Bloomberg) -- The Republican chairman of the House’s main investigative committee ramped up pressure on White House chief of staff John Kelly as he launched a probe into the administration’s handling of domestic abuse allegations against a former top presidential aide.

Scrutiny of the White House’s security procedures intensified on Wednesday as six Democratic senators demanded a list of White House aides who haven’t yet passed security background checks. A top White House energy adviser resigned after being told he wouldn’t receive a security clearance.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, released a letter to Kelly seeking answers on who knew about spouse abuse allegations against former Staff Secretary Rob Porter and when they knew it. An investigation Gowdy initiated into Porter’s background review raises the prospect of extended public embarrassment for the administration as White House and FBI officials could face questioning in front of a hostile committee, led by President Donald Trump’s own party.

Trump Ally Opens House Inquiry Into Handling of Ex-Aide Porter

Gowdy told CNN that his panel started the inquiry on Tuesday night after FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers that the bureau provided the White House the results of a background investigation of Porter as early as July. The report included abuse allegations by Porter’s two ex-wives, a person familiar with the matter said.

“How in the hell was he still employed?” Gowdy said in a CNN interview Wednesday morning. The Republican lawmaker said that he wants to know “who knew what, when, and to what extent.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan quickly gave public backing to the investigation.

“If a person who commits domestic violence gets into government, then there’s a breakdown of the system, there’s a breakdown in the vetting system, and that breakdown needs to be addressed,” Ryan told reporters Wednesday morning.

Trump, facing criticism for statements last week and over the weekend defending Porter without expressing sympathy for his former wives or condemning domestic violence, on Wednesday made a statement in which he denounced spousal abuse.

“I’m totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind,” Trump told reporters. “Everyone knows that. And it almost wouldn’t even have to be said. So, now you hear it, but you all know.”

Wray’s testimony Tuesday is spurring fresh questions about Kelly’s knowledge of Porter’s history, including when he knew about the allegations and whether he informed the president. The controversy is prompting some of Trump’s outside advisers and allies -- especially those with grudges against the former Marine general -- to push for replacing him as chief of staff, according to several people familiar with the matter.

Vice President Mike Pence offered public support for the embattled chief of staff on Wednesday, telling an audience at a Washington event sponsored by Axios that Kelly has done a “remarkable” job and that Pence looks forward to continuing to work with him for “many months to come.”

Trump was aware before the event that Pence would make the supportive comments, a person familiar with the matter said.

Gowdy, who isn’t running for re-election, requested detailed information on the Trump administration’s clearance procedures and a timeline of how damaging information on Porter was handled.

Letters Gowdy sent to Kelly and to Wray, dated Feb. 14, give them two weeks to provide information from both White House and FBI records.

Six Democratic senators wrote their own letter to Wray asking for a list of all White House staff working under "interim” security clearances, a status Porter had during his entire yearlong tenure at the White House.

“Who else is currently working at the White House following the completion of a background investigation without being able to obtain a permanent security clearance?” the senators wrote in their letter.

George David Banks, who served on the National Economic Council as a special assistant to the president for international energy and environmental policy since February 2017, fit the category. He resigned Wednesday, saying he had been told he wouldn’t be granted a security clearance because he smoked marijuana five years ago.

The FBI’s revelation on Tuesday forced the White House revise its official account of when top officials learned of the allegations against Porter.

Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday that “the White House had not received any specific papers regarding the completion” of Porter’s background investigation. On Tuesday, after Wray’s testimony, she said the FBI’s report had gone to the White House “personnel security office,” which she said was staffed by civil servants rather than political appointees.

She said that as far as she knew, that office hadn’t alerted any of the president’s West Wing staff, and six months after receiving the FBI report the office still hadn’t finished “a final recommendation for adjudication” of Porter’s security clearance before he resigned last week.

The FBI investigated Porter as part of his application for a top-level security clearance for his job, which entailed handling some of the nation’s most sensitive documents.

Wray made a terse reference at a hearing on Tuesday before the Senate Intelligence Committee, noting that the bureau submitted a final report in late July on Porter after having provided the White House with preliminary findings in March. He didn’t discuss the contents of the reports.

The personnel security office, which makes recommendations about security clearances, is overseen by Joe Hagin, Trump’s deputy chief of staff for operations, a person familiar with the matter said.

Hagin has not responded to inquiries this week.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.