The White House’s latest defense of Rob Porter doesn’t add up, two Obama lawyers say

The White House's personnel security office, explained.

White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter watches as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office at the White House. CREDIT: Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter watches as President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with North Korean defectors in the Oval Office at the White House. CREDIT: Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that the White House’s personnel security office’s consideration of former staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned last week after two of his ex-wives accused him of domestic abusive, was still ongoing when Porter resigned.

“The White House personnel security office, staffed by career officials, received information last year in what they considered to be the final background investigation report in November,” Sanders said at the press briefing Tuesday. “But they had not made a final recommendation for adjudication to the White House because the process was still ongoing when Rob Porter resigned.”

Advertisement

But two former Obama lawyers who worked in the White House told ThinkProgress Tuesday that Sanders’ description of the process is misleading.

“It’s not credible at all,” one of the lawyers, Daniel Jacobson, said in a phone call with ThinkProgress Tuesday regarding Sanders’ statement about the personnel security office.

“The personnel security office is very thorough but if there is a super VIP in the West Wing who needs a security clearance, they would expedite it,” Jacobson said. “The White House makes it sound like there are files that just get stuck at the bottom of the pile if they really need to get a security clearance.”

According to Jacobson and another Obama administration lawyer, when the White House wants to hire someone, the FBI begins a background check on that person. When they finish the background check, the personnel security office and the White House counsel receive that background check and the information it contains.

Advertisement

In Porter’s case, the personnel security office and President Trump’s White House counsel would have had access to Porter’s background check, which reportedly contained the allegations made by his two ex-wives as well as the police report from when one of the women, Jennifer Willoughby, filed for a temporary restraining order against Porter. (The Daily Mail obtained and published the report last week.)

The background check also reportedly included photographs of injuries Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, says Porter gave her, which have been published by the media in recent days.

On Tuesday, FBI director Christopher Wray said under oath during a hearing that their background check had concluded.

“What I can tell you is that the FBI submitted a partial report on the investigation in question in March, and then a completed background investigation in late July,” Wray said Tuesday during the hearing. “Soon thereafter we received requests for follow-up inquiry, and we did the follow-up and provided that information in November, 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.”

Advertisement

That means that in March — 11 months ago — the White House counsel and personnel office would have begun to receive background information on Porter, and, according to a Bloomberg News report Tuesday evening, the report given to the council and the personnel security office last July contained the abuse allegations that have been made against Porter.

Sanders’ statement Tuesday makes it sound as if the White House did not have access to information about Porter’s background, but, in reality, they would have received any information the personnel security office was receiving about Porter.

One lawyer told ThinkProgress that although the determination about a person’s security clearance can take months — especially in the crush of new hires that come with a new administration and with a complicated case like Porter’s — the White House had all the information about the abuse allegations against Porter. Another said that to blame the personnel office was unfair.

Jacobson told ThinkProgress he can only think of one reason why someone like Porter’s clearance would be delayed. The personnel security office, which is staffed by career officials, report to Deputy Chief of Staff Joe Hagin, a Trump political appointee.

“I don’t know their dynamics, but my guess as to what happened here is perhaps the personnel security office told Joe Hagan or someone who works for Joe Hagan and there were some issues here and they would not be able to grant him security clearance with a straight face,” Jacobson said Tuesday.

Then, Jacobson said, he thinks it’s possible Hagan asked the personnel security office to delay adjudication of Porter’s security clearance in order to keep Porter in the White House. According to Bloomberg News, Hagan was aware of the accusations.

“I find it extremely troublesome, bothersome, what I saw today in the quotes from the press secretary, that she is trying to blame [the personnel security office],” Jacobson said Tuesday. “To somehow try and deflect attention onto them is really, sort of, I think, not fair, when the only explanation I can think of is there has been political interference.”