Trump still has confidence in chief of staff John Kelly despite Rob Porter domestic-abuse scandal, White House says

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump still has confidence in White House chief of staff John Kelly despite his initial backing of Rob Porter, a top Trump aide accused of domestic abuse.
  • Porter resigned after both his ex-wives said he was physically and verbally abusive to them during their marriages.
  • Porter denies the allegations.
White House chief of staff John Kelly and White House staff secretary Rob Porter.
Nicholas Kamm | AFP | Getty Images

President Donald Trump still has confidence in his chief of staff, John Kelly, despite Kelly's initial full-throated defense of now former top aide Rob Porter, who is accused of domestic abuse, a White House spokesman said Thursday.

"Yes, the president has confidence in his chief of staff, [legal] counsel and communications director," said spokesman Raj Shah.

In addition to Kelly's defense of Porter, Politico reported that an ex-girlfriend of Porter's had told White House counsel Don McGahn recently about the claims of abuse by his two ex-wives.

And White House communications director Hope Hicks, who is reportedly dating Porter, was said to have been involved in crafting the administration's response to the first articles detailing his alleged mistreatment of the women.

Shah refused to say how much Kelly — or other administration officials — knew about allegations that Porter had physically and verbally abused both ex-wives before Porter resigned as Trump's staff secretary Wednesday, even as he denied the claims.

"I'm not going to get into specifics" about when people knew certain things, Shah said.

Kelly faced heavy criticism Wednesday and Thursday for unreservedly backing Porter before he quit and for reportedly urging him to stay on "and fight" in the face of the allegations.

Shah said Kelly, who was Porter's immediate superior, only became "fully aware" of the scope of those "serious and disturbing" claims Wednesday, when the Daily Mail published photos of one of his ex-wives with a black eye that she said Porter gave her.

Kelly, who last fall had bemoaned a culture that no longer held women to be "sacred" like when he was a child, on Thursday said that he was "shocked by the new allegations."

But Kelly also said he stood by "my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know ... and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation."

Trump told Shah on Thursday that "he was very saddened by" the situation "and the images he saw," the spokesman said.

'He was surprised," Shah said. "Like many of us, he did not see that in Rob Porter."

"We do take violence against women very seriously," Shah said.

He also said that Porter was no longer working at the White House despite Trump's press secretary on Wednesday indicating the 40-year-old Harvard grad and Rhodes scholar would not be immediately leaving.

During a press briefing, Shah revealed that Porter had been operating under a temporary security clearance that was granted as a full security background check was being conducted and that was still in effect at the time of his resignation.

"Rob Porter was never denied a security clearance; he never received any special treatment," Shah said.

The question of Porter's security status was raised after the Daily Mail noted that the FBI, which was conducting that background check, had been told by his ex-wives that he had abused them and been the subject of a protective order filed by one of them.

As staff secretary, Porter was responsible for vetting documents — some of them classified — before they were placed on Trump's desk.

Shah said that sometimes in background checks "some information arises that seems troubling or complicated" but that that check then continues while investigators look into both the claims and any denials of the claims.

Shah said Trump had not been aware of the fact that Porter had only a temporary security clearance.

The spokesman also said that Hicks had partially recused herself from "some matters" in White House responses to the scandal as it broke over the past several days.

And, referring to the White House's handling of the situation, which had initially included fulsome praise for Porter from press secretary Sarah Sanders, Shah said, "I think it's fair to say that we could have all done better over the last few days."

Shah said the initial White House response to claims that Porter had abused his wives "reflected the Rob Porter we have known."

"All the emerging reports were not reflective of the individual that we've come to know," Shah said.

On Tuesday night, the Daily Mail published a bombshell story quoting Porter's second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, at length about his allegedly abusive nature.

Willoughby said Porter called her a "f---ing b----" on their honeymoon in 2009.

She said she sought therapy shortly after they wed because of Porter's anger issues, which escalated in late 2010 when he dragged her naked and wet out of a shower after an argument.

Before that, she had filed a protective order against him in June 2010 because he allegedly violated a separation agreement and refused to leave their apartment when she asked him to do so.

According to police records, Porter punched the glass on a door at their home during that incident.

Porter told the Daily Mail that the allegations "are slanderous and simply false."

Kelly, in a statement to the Daily Mail for that story, had said, "Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor, and I can't say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him."

And Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in that story, "'I have worked directly with Rob Porter nearly every day for the last year and the person I know is someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character."

"'Those of us who have the privilege of knowing him are better people because of it," Sanders said.

The next day, Porter's first wife, Colbie Holderness, was quoted in a new Daily Mail story that contained pictures of her bruised face.

Holderness said Porter became physically abusive on their honeymoon in 2003, when he kicked her after becoming frustrated that they were not having sex.

She said the abuse escalated, and at times he "would throw me down on the bed, then put his full body weight on top of me, then grind a knee or elbow into my body, expressing rage."

During a visit to Italy, she said, he punched her in the face.