WASHINGTON ― As questions swirl about how a top aide could work at the White House for a year despite his inability to qualify for a security clearance, critics point to what they believe is the root problem: Neither could his boss, President Donald Trump.
All eyes are on former staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned after reports detailed domestic violence accusations by his ex-wives, and White House chief of staff John Kelly, whose credibility is now under question after his defenses of his key aide shifted. The accusations of the two former wives likely blocked Porter’s security clearance application.
Yet lost in the latest controversy of the Trump presidency is the near certainty that Trump himself would fail a security clearance application. As the elected president, he is not required to possess one to have access to the nation’s most closely held information.
Without that exemption, though, a financial history that includes four business bankruptcies and allegations of fraud as well as sexual misconduct accusations by nearly two dozen women would raise multiple “red flags,” said a former Defense Department official who once held a top-secret clearance himself.
“If Donald Trump were not president, he wouldn’t be able to get within 100 miles of a security clearance,” the former official said on condition of anonymity to discuss security clearance matters.
It was Trump’s checkered business history and his treatment of women and minorities that led many Republicans to openly criticize him during the 2016 campaign. And now it is those criticisms, combined with Trump’s insistence on absolute loyalty from his subordinates, that has limited the talent pool available to Trump’s White House ― and made it more likely for those with questionable backgrounds to win high-level jobs.
Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon, who initially had a seat on a key National Security Council committee, also had been accused of domestic violence, which Trump reportedly joked about by calling him “Bam Bam,” after the “Flintstones” cartoon character.
“He’s going to attract those kind of people. He’s going to attract people with problems,” the former official said. “A lot of people in Washington do not want to work in this White House.”
This widely acknowledged challenge of recruiting top talent may have been a central factor in Kelly’s reluctance to lose Porter, who had been instrumental in Kelly’s ability to reduce much of the chaos that defined the Trump White House’s first months.
Porter’s role as staff secretary meant he determined what material would make it to Trump’s desk and, under Kelly’s supervision, who would be afforded a meeting with the president. Prior to Kelly’s arrival, access to Trump was far more ad hoc, leading to his taking unscheduled meetings with random staff members and receiving “news” items from such unverified sources as the Breitbart News website.
Since joining the White House, even as Trump’s credibility continued to erode because of his near-daily habit of making false statements, the retired Marine general has enjoyed a higher standing as someone whose word could be trusted.
“He’s going to attract people with problems. A lot of people in Washington do not want to work in this White House.”
That authority, though, has been damaged by a string of rapidly shifting public statements about Porter. In the initial story on Tuesday by the London-based Daily Mail, Kelly ― in addition to other top White House officials ― stood by Porter unequivocally. “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,” Kelly told the Daily Mail.
On Wednesday, after an article that included photographs of his first wife’s bruised eye, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders continued to defend Porter on behalf of both Trump and Kelly: “I can tell you that Rob has been effective in his role as staff secretary, and the president and chief of staff have had full confidence and trust in his abilities and his performance.”
But by Wednesday night, Kelly had a new statement that acknowledged he had accepted Porter’s resignation: “I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society.”
Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah in Thursday’s daily news briefing said Kelly, like the rest of the White House, learned the details of the abuse accusations only from the news reports. “He became fully aware about these allegations yesterday,” Shah said.
Yet that assertion was challenged by a Republican close to the White House who said Kelly received word last fall that Porter had failed his security clearance investigation because of the domestic abuse reports. Porter at that time told Kelly he would leave the White House in December but agreed to stay at Kelly’s urging, the Republican said on condition of anonymity.
He added that Porter is not unique in Trump’s White House in having failed the security clearance background investigation. “How many other people in the building don’t have their clearance? And why are they allowed to stay there?” he asked.
Shah, asked during the briefing about how many other White House staffers were still working on an interim clearance, declined to answer. “I got into the security clearance process as much as I’m allowed to discuss it, and I’m not going to go further,” he said.