The Rob Porter scandal engulfing the White House is now under congressional investigation

Wednesday , February 14, 2018 - 12:40 PM

Herman Wong and Mike DeBonis

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

The Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is investigating the White House’s employment of former senior aide Rob Porter after allegations emerged that he abused his two ex-wives - a rare GOP foray into alleged misbehavior in the top echelon of the Trump administration.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the panel’s chairman, sent letters Wednesday to FBI Director Christopher Wray and White House Chief of Staff John Kelly asking for information on what they knew about the allegations against Porter and when they knew it - an inquiry prompted by an apparent contradiction between the timeline offered by the White House and offered by Wray in congressional testimony on Tuesday.

“I have real questions about how someone like this could be considered for employment,” Gowdy said on CNN’s “New Day” on Wednesday, adding that “the chronology is not favorable for the White House.”

The Porter scandal has raised sharp questions about what President Donald Trump’s top aides may have known about the accusations and when. The White House has struggled to contain a widening crisis over its handling of Porter, who resigned last week. Wray’s testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday, indicating that the FBI raised concerns about Porter in March, directly rebutted what Trump’s aides have said publicly about when the bureau informed White House officials about Porter’s security-clearance investigation.

White House officials said the FBI first contacted them in the summer about Porter’s clearance, according to a report from The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima and Shane Harris. Officials also claimed the investigation was never completed, and they did not know the extent of the allegations against Porter.

Gowdy’s probe encompasses the larger question of whether more White House officials are working with temporary security clearances, indicating potential vetting problems.

According to the letters sent to Wray and Kelly, the House panel is “investigating the policies and practices by which interim security clearances are investigated and adjudicated within the Executive Branch, and the extent to which any security clearance issued to Porter comported with those policies and processes.”

As the White House staff secretary, Porter was responsible for handling the flow of paperwork to and from Trump’s desk - including some of the most sensitive secrets of the federal government. Watchdogs have raised the possibility that Porter could have been subject to blackmail by someone aware of the allegations against him. Two of Porter’s ex-wives, as well as a former girlfriend, have publicly recounted episodes of verbal and physical abuse; one has shared pictures of a facial injury she said Porter inflicted.

Porter has denied wrongdoing.

Gowdy’s letters come nearly a week after the allegations against Porter exploded - prompting an initial wagon-circling from the White House, then his resignation. Questions since then have focused on whether Kelly ignored credible warnings from the FBI and kept Porter in his job.

On Thursday, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the top Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, urged Gowdy to take action, accusing Republicans of having “constructed a wall around the White House in order to prevent any credible oversight whatsoever.” Cummings pointed to Democratic requests dating back to the weeks after the 2016 presidential election for more information about security clearances for senior Trump aides.

“If you had agreed to any of our previous requests for information on these matters, the White House would have been required to answer key questions about why Mr. Porter was denied a final security clearance, who at the White House was aware of this information, and how Mr. Porter was allowed to remain in his position,” Cummings wrote.

On Wednesday, Cummings struck a more cooperative note, commending Gowdy for launching a probe. But obviously,” Cummings added, “the credibility of this investigation will be judged by how thorough it is in obtaining documents and interviewing witnesses, and how bipartisan it is in its conclusions.”

Cummings said he personally wished to interview Kelly, Wray and White House Counsel Donald McGahn.

In his eight months as Oversight chairman, Gowdy has spent much of his time engulfed in another committee’s work: the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s probe of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, where Republicans appear increasingly determined to focus on potential wrongdoing by federal law enforcement rather than any misdeeds committed by Trump or his campaign.

But as Oversight chairman, Gowdy has occasionally taken an interest in other matters. He signed letters in September, for instance, asking for more information about senior Trump officials’ use of private or government-owned planes, as well as the use of private email accounts and text messages to conduct White House business.

The next month, however, he turned his focus to issues predating the Trump administration: an Obama administration decision to approve the sale of a U.S. uranium mining company to a Russian firm, and the role federal law enforcement played in the 2016 election - including the decision to clear Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton of criminal wrongdoing related to her use of a private email server as secretary of state.

In the letters, Gowdy requested information on the process for obtaining an interim security clearance, what was known about Porter and who allowed his interim clearance. The probe will also look at when and who in the White House knew about the domestic abuse allegations.

“I think the really fair questions are: What were you told? By whom were you told it? Did you have some really good reason to question what the bureau told you? And, if none of that was true, why did you keep him on?” Gowdy said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., asked about Porter’s employment Wednesday, said: “If a person who commits domestic violence gets into government, then there’s a breakdown in the system. There’s a breakdown in the vetting system, and that needs to be addressed.”

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