During the White House press briefing on Thursday, deputy press secretary Raj Shah was asked why Rob Porter was allowed to work in a sensitive White House role for a year after two of his ex-wives told the FBI he had physically and emotionally abused them.
“You talked about the fact that there weren’t any concerns, you said, that could that could compromise national security or interfere with operations here at the White House, but we’ve spoken to one of Porter’s ex-wives who told us that she warned the FBI that he could be susceptible to blackmail because of the allegations,” NBC’s Peter Alexander said.
Shah ducked the inquiry.
“I’m not going to get into the specifics of the allegation itself,” he said. “I think that’s a question for the FBI and others.”
Shah’s response didn’t foreclose the possibility that the FBI didn’t inform the White House about the accusations. But the White House has acknowledged that senior officials were generally aware of the abuse allegations against Porter, a secretary tasked with handling sensitive documents for President Trump.
What finally prompted the White House to act? At other points during the briefing, Shah said the photograph the Daily Mail published earlier this week showing one of Porter’s ex-wives with a black eye made officials “fully aware” of the allegations.
Shah said that prior to then, the White House’s thinking was that the accusations “involve incidents long before [Porter] joined the White House,” and that Porter’s denials also needed to be considered.
“This is a process that involves a thorough investigation, and as I went through the process, it involves looking at not just accusations, but denials,” Shah said.
Shah, making his first appearance behind the White House press briefing podium, also struggled to explain why on Wednesday, Chief of Staff John Kelly offered an unqualified endorsement of Porter and reportedly tried to convince him not to resign — even thought he knew of the abuse allegations against him.
If the FBI indeed told the White House about the blackmail concerns surrounding Porter, it wouldn’t be the first time the Trump administration failed to act following a tip of that sort.
Days after Trump’s inauguration, the FBI informed the White House about blackmail concerns surrounding then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who had made false statements to investigators about his contacts with Russia. Flynn, however, kept working at the White House for 18 days.
Last July, the Washington Post reported that U.S. intelligence intercepts indicate that Attorney General Jeff Sessions lied when he claimed he never discussed campaign-related matters with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during their meetings last year. If true, that means Sessions would also have opened himself up to possible blackmail.