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Porter timeline skewed; Wray says FBI inquiry finished in January

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Photographs by AP file photo

President Donald Trump's Chief of Staff John Kelly, left, White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, center, and then White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, right, arrive at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018.

WASHINGTON -- The FBI director, Christopher Wray, said Tuesday that the bureau's background investigation into Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary who resigned after spousal-abuse allegations, was formally closed in January. But the White House allowed Porter to continue serving in his post until the accusations surfaced publicly in news reports last week.

In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Wray pointed out a contradictory and frequently changing storyline from the White House about a scandal that has engulfed the West Wing. The case has raised questions about the credibility of President Donald Trump's most senior advisers and their awareness of serious allegations against an aide who had access to some of the nation's most sensitive information.

Wray's testimony upended the White House's timeline of the events that led to Porter's departure, contradicting the contention of top officials that his background investigation was "ongoing" at the time of his resignation last week.

Wray also told lawmakers that the FBI delivered its first report on Porter to the White House in March, months earlier than White House officials said they learned of the problems with Porter's background check. Wray did not disclose the contents of that initial report, but Porter's two ex-wives have said they told FBI agents about the abuse during interviews conducted in January 2017.

At Tuesday's White House briefing, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stood by the White House's previous explanation of the matter, saying the presidential personnel office was still reviewing Porter's case when the aide resigned.

Sanders said that while the "FBI portion was closed, the White House personnel security office, who is the one to make the recommendation for adjudication, was not finished [with] their process; therefore, they did not make a recommendation to the White House."

Porter, who as staff secretary handled all of the documents that made their way to the president, was forced to resign after allegations of abuse by his two ex-wives surfaced, sparking a week of shifting explanations by White House officials about who knew about those claims against Porter and when they knew it. In the weeks before, according to people familiar with the situation, Porter had been jockeying for an expanded position in the West Wing.

Trump's aides initially said they had no inkling of the accusations against Porter until news reports that first appeared in The Daily Mail last week, and that they acted swiftly to terminate him when they discovered them. In fact, the White House spent the first hours after learning of the accusations -- including the publication of photographs of one of his ex-wives with a black eye that she said he gave her -- defending Porter against the allegations and insisting that he was not being dismissed from his job.

Since then, multiple people familiar with the situation have said that top officials -- including John Kelly, the chief of staff; Joe Hagin, the deputy chief of staff for operations; and Don McGahn, the White House counsel -- learned in November that there were problems with Porter's background investigation.

Even after Kelly changed his stance, calling the allegations vile and orchestrating Porter's swift departure, the president has stuck up for Porter publicly, telling reporters that the situation had been "tough" and "sad" for Porter.

The president insisted that Porter has denied the accusations, and he wished Porter a successful career.

The day Porter resigned, Sanders portrayed it as his decision alone.

"I think that was a personal decision that Rob made, and one that he was not pressured to do, but one that he made on his own," she told reporters.

Sanders also said "the president and chief of staff have had full confidence and trust in his abilities and his performance."

Porter's two former wives, who accuse him of physically and emotionally abusing them during their marriages, both say they informed FBI investigators conducting his background check of the incidents in January of last year.

Wray's testimony suggested that the White House security office, which handles security clearances and is overseen by Hagin, had received a preliminary report on Porter from the FBI months earlier than previously known.

Wray did not disclose the contents of the FBI's inquiry. But he said that after the partial report in March, the FBI gave the White House "a completed background investigation" on Porter in late July. He said the bureau received a request for a "follow-up inquiry" -- the kind of directive that typically would have come from a senior official in the West Wing -- and provided more information about Porter's background to the White House in November.

He also said Porter's background check investigation was "administratively closed" in January, weeks before the allegations against Porter were publicly known.

While the background investigation was closed in January, he said, the FBI "received some additional information" after the file was closed and passed that on to the White House as well.

Wray said he was "quite confident" that established protocol was followed. Sanders, who on Monday deflected a number of questions about how the White House handled Porter's case, suggested that it was the intelligence agencies that conduct background checks that should consider their handling of the matter.

"It's up to those same law enforcement and intelligence agencies to determine if changes need to be made to their process," Sanders said.

Officials have said the security office at the White House was first contacted by the FBI in June, and again in November. But White House officials also have insisted that the investigation into Porter's background was never completed.

"His background investigation was ongoing," Raj Shah, the deputy White House press secretary, told reporters last week. "He was operating on an interim security clearance. His clearance was never denied, and he resigned."

The Porter incident also has renewed scrutiny of how many White House officials who may have access to classified information continue to work in the West Wing without permanent security clearances.

At Tuesday's hearing, Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, declined to comment on Porter's case or those of other White House officials, including Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, who have temporary security clearances but still have access to classified information.

In general, Coats said, people with temporary clearance should have limited access to classified information.

Information for this article was contributed by Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear of The New York Times; and by Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris and Josh Dawsey of The Washington Post.

A Section on 02/14/2018

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