John Kelly tries to defend himself against criticism over Rob Porter controversy, fails

The White House chief of staff keeps digging a deeper and deeper hole.

White House chief of staff John Kelly attends an event to mark the 15th anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security, March 1, 2018 in Washington, DC. (CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
White House chief of staff John Kelly attends an event to mark the 15th anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security, March 1, 2018 in Washington, DC. (CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

White House chief of staff John Kelly tried to once again defend his response to allegations of abuse against former staff secretary Rob Porter this week by further complicating an already tangled narrative.

Speaking with reporters in an impromptu meeting on Friday, Kelly claimed that the “first [he’d] heard of a serious accusation against [Porter]” was on February 6, when reporters from the Daily Mail reached out to ask him about allegations of abuse by one of his ex-wives.

“The accusation was late in the afternoon…one of you had asked [press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders]. That’s how I found out. There was no story out yet,” he said. “The story was that a wife had claimed that she had had some level of emotional abuse. That was, I want to say, 5 o’clock in the afternoon. I talked to Rob, I said ‘what’s the deal?’ He denied it. He said it’s absolutely untrue.”

Kelly stated that it wasn’t until later in the evening on February 6, after a second abuse allegation from Porter’s first wife was published, that Porter offered his resignation.

“I got back here [from a meeting at] 6, 6:30 [p.m.]. Another press inquiry that a second wife had made accusations and included physical abuse,” Kelly claimed. “I talked to Rob and just, he resigned. That was maybe 7:30 on the sixth of February, about two hours after I found out.”

Kelly’s version of events, however, doesn’t line up: according to Daily Mail U.S. political editor David Martosko, whose outlet published the first accusations against Porter, Kelly had been apprised of the physical abuse allegations against Porter prior to their report.

“John Kelly is defending his inaction on Rob Porter by claiming that the first accusation brought to the White House was of only ’emotional abuse,'” he tweeted. “Untrue. We told the White House that [Porter’s second wife] Jennifer Willoughby claimed he physically dragged her, naked, out of a shower.”

Previous reporting and comments from the FBI also cast doubt on Kelly’s narrative: Porter, who has since left the administration, was among several White House staffers who had been operating on an interim clearance for the past year, because his background check had not been completed, according to the White House. Sanders and deputy press secretary Rob Shah initially claimed that Kelly had been unaware of the allegations against Porter because the White House security office had not yet made a decision on whether to issue a full clearance by the time the first accusations were made public.

However, the FBI, which handled the background investigation, later disputed that account, saying it had completed Porter’s check in July and had sent the information to the White House security office. White House counsel Don McGahn, deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, and Kelly were reportedly made aware of the abuse allegations in November, and the security office submitted follow-up inquiries to the FBI at that point. The FBI’s investigation was administratively closed in January, although, as Sanders noted in February, the White House security office “had not made a final recommendation for adjudication to the White House because the process was still ongoing when Rob Porter resigned.”

Additionally, as several reporters pointed out on Friday, the White House issued subsequent statements defending Porter even after Kelly became aware of the abuse allegations. Speaking with the Daily Mail on February 6, Kelly had said Porter was “someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character”; in a statement that same day, press secretary Sanders echoed Kelly’s comments and said the White House had “full confidence” in Porter.

Defending himself to reporters on Friday, he explained, “At that point in time [when I made the statement of support for Porter], I thought it was accurate of my relationship with [him].”

Kelly contradicted himself about the timing of Porter’s resignation on Friday as well; although the chief of staff first claimed that Porter had resigned following the second allegation of abuse later in the evening on February 6, he subsequently stated that Porter had actually resigned earlier in the day, after the Daily Mail first reached out about the allegations.

“We put out a statement of support for him and an hour later now find out there’s a second report — still not in the press, still no pictures — just an inquiry by someone probably in this room that said ‘Hey, his first wife of 15 years ago says that there was physical abuse,'” he said, according to CNN. “He had already resigned. I just talked to Rob again to make sure he knew he had resigned.”

When pressed about the discrepancies on Friday, and whether he would step down over the controversy, Kelly stated, “I have absolutely nothing to even consider resigning over.”