John Kelly, White House chief of staff, listens during an infrastructure initiative meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, not pictured, at the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S. (Photographer: T.J. Kirkpatrick/Bloomberg)

Kelly’s Handling of Ex-Trump Aide Scrutinized After FBI Account

(Bloomberg) -- White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is under increasing scrutiny for his handling of domestic violence allegations against a former top presidential aide after the FBI offered an account of events on Tuesday that conflicted with his narrative.

FBI Director Christopher Wray told lawmakers Tuesday that the bureau provided the White House the results of a background investigation of former Staff Secretary Rob 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?” House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy told CNN Wednesday morning. The Republican lawmaker said the committee launched a probe Tuesday night and that he wants to know “who knew what, when, and to what extent.”

The revelation by Wray is spurring fresh questions about Kelly’s knowledge of Porter’s history, including when he knew about the allegations and whether he informed President Donald Trump. 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.

There is intense debate within the White House about what steps to take next. Trump himself has recently floated potential Kelly replacements with advisers, according to two of the people.

Several White House officials, including some allied with Kelly, no longer believe he can survive the Porter episode. Some senior staff feel he asked them to lie on his behalf. Nothing had been decided or announced as of Wednesday morning, one senior White House official said. There’s disappointment in Kelly, according to the official, who described the chief of staff’s handling of Porter as amateurish.

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 and Kelly have shown mutual loyalty to each other, and one person familiar with the matter said the president is unlikely to act immediately to remove him. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday that Kelly retains the president’s confidence, and declined to comment for this story later in the day. An aide to Kelly also declined to comment.

Mulvaney, Cohn

Names mentioned as possibilities for Trump’s third of chief of staff include: White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, who is doing double duty as the acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau; National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn; Representative Mark Meadows of North Carolina, the leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus; and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.

White House advisers were agitating for their favorites on Tuesday. Anthony Scaramucci, who briefly served as Trump’s communications director, said on Twitter that Kelly should step down.

“Based on FBI testimony, WH Chief of Staff John Kelly almost certainly knew about credible allegations of domestic abuse against Rob Porter at least 6 months ago -- then recently forced others to lie about that timeline,” Scaramucci tweeted on Tuesday. “Inexcusable. Kelly must resign.”

It was Kelly, in his first day as chief of staff, who carried out Scaramucci’s dismissal last July.

Meadows said he’d had no conversations with the president about the job. Cohn didn’t respond to inquiries on Tuesday evening. A McCarthy aide didn’t respond to an inquiry. Mulvaney has said he is happy in his position.

The FBI revelations were an embarrassment for the White House, where Sanders was forced to revise the official account of when top officials learned of the allegations against Porter.

She said on Monday that “the White House had not received any specific papers regarding the completion” of Porter’s background investigation. On Tuesday, 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.

She also distanced herself from Kelly’s claim that he had acted to remove Porter from his job within 40 minutes of learning of the allegations from reports published Tuesday. Asked whether the White House still maintained Kelly didn’t previously know of the allegations, she responded, “I can only give you the best information that I have, and that’s my understanding.”

She didn’t answer when asked if she personally felt misled.

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.

“I’m quite confident that in this particular incident the FBI followed the appropriate protocol,” Wray said.

Security Office

White House officials have struggled to explain who knew about the allegations against Porter, when they knew, and what, if anything, was done about it. 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.

In past administrations, the White House counsel’s office has also been involved in vetting potential employees. Decisions on security clearances for White House staff are ultimately up to the White House under the president’s authority.

The New York Times reported that White House counsel Don McGahn was made aware last June that an issue had arisen in Porter’s background investigation, but White House officials disputed that account to the newspaper. Kelly told CNBC that he was told in November that there were issues in some background investigations, but that he hadn’t been told the details of the Porter allegations.

‘40 Minutes’

Kelly said again in an interview with CNBC on Tuesday that Porter decided to resign “40 minutes” after Kelly learned of the full extent of the allegations on Feb. 6.

But that narrative was contradicted by a White House statement saying Porter had resigned on Feb. 7. White House officials also emphasized the same day that Porter had not been asked to resign, and Sanders invited a select group of reporters to meet with Porter to hear his side of the story, according to a report in Politico.

After the FBI completed Porter’s background check last July, the bureau received a follow-up inquiry and provided additional information to the White House in November, Wray said, without providing details. The FBI administratively closed the file last month, but has since received additional information, which it passed along to the White House, Wray added.

Kushner Question

The episode is likely to focus renewed attention on other members of the White House without permanent security clearances.

At the hearing with Wray on Tuesday, senators asked about the security clearance status of Trump aide and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and whether White House officials who have not received a full security clearance should have access to classified material.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, who testified at the same Tuesday, said people with interim clearances should have limited access to classified information.

Coats and Wray declined to comment specifically about Porter and Kushner.

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