White House plays defense after FBI testimony

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday contradicted the White House’s account of its handling of domestic abuse allegations against former top Trump aide Rob Porter, setting off a new round of controversy for the embattled administration.

In testimony on Capitol Hill, Wray said the FBI delivered its first report on Porter to the White House in March 2017, months before officials said they first learned about problems during his background check for a security clearance.

Wray told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee that the bureau “administratively closed the file” on Porter last month, undercutting claims by White House officials that the background check was “still ongoing” at the time the allegations surfaced publicly.

It’s the second time this month Wray has found himself at odds with the White House. The FBI issued a statement warning of “grave consequences” if Trump approved the release of a congressional Republican memo related to the Russia investigation, but the president allowed it to become public anyway.

The FBI chief did not discuss the contents of the reports about Porter, but his two ex-wives have said they told federal investigators in January 2017 that Porter physically abused them.

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Porter, who served as White House staff secretary, resigned last week after news outlets reported the allegations. One of his ex-wives said he bruised her eye and presented a photo as evidence. Porter denies any abuse occurred.

Wray’s testimony extended the Porter saga into a seventh day, frustrating officials who have struggled to move past it.

The central problem for the White House is the shifting explanations of Porter’s resignation. Reports have suggested that President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rallies in Nevada amid Supreme Court flurry: 'We're gonna get Brett' Trump: 'Good news' that Obama is campaigning again Trump boosts Heller, hammers 'Wacky Jacky' opponent in Nevada MORE’s senior advisers, including chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE and White House counsel Don McGahn, learned of the abuse allegations last year but did nothing.

Kelly has denied that he knew of the allegations and told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday he was satisfied with how Porter’s situation was handled.

“It was all done right,” Kelly said.

The controversy has also focused attention on the president’s attitudes toward women, creating a political storm that could have wide-ranging consequences for the White House and the Republican Party in the midterm elections.

Trump was asked twice on Tuesday if he has a message for victims of domestic abuse but declined to comment both times.

That left press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders to field questions about who knew about the Porter allegations, when they found out about them and what was done about it.

Sanders insisted that Wray’s testimony did not contradict the White House’s timeline, saying that the White House personnel office, which she said makes recommendations about security clearances, was still dealing with Porter’s case.

“They had not made a final recommendation on adjudication to the White House because the process was still ongoing when Rob Porter resigned,” Sanders said, reading from a prepared statement.

In past administrations, the White House counsel’s office has also been involved in vetting staff hires and nominees. But Sanders said she was “not aware of any communication” between the West Wing and the personnel office, which she said is staffed by career officials.

White House spokesman Raj Shah said on Thursday that Porter’s background investigation “was ongoing” at the time he resigned, a claim repeated by Sanders on Monday.

“The White House had not received any specific papers regarding the completion of that background check,” she said.

On Tuesday, Sanders appeared to grow weary with the repeated questions about who in the White House knew about the accusations against Porter.

“I can only give you the best information I have and that’s my understanding,” she said when asked to affirm that Kelly was not fully aware of the allegations until last week.

She repeated a variation of that line on four occasions.

“Obviously, the press team is not going to be as read-in, maybe, as some other elements at any given moment on a variety of topics, but we relay the best and most accurate information that we have and we get those from those individuals,” she said.

Wray appeared to put the onus on the White House for allowing Porter to remain on staff despite the fact that the abuse allegations prevented him from gaining a full security clearance.

“I am quite confident in this particular instance the FBI followed the established protocols,” Wray said.

He offered a clear timeline of the FBI’s handling of Porter’s background investigation. After the bureau’s initial report in March, he said it completed the probe in late July — around the time Kelly was hired as Trump’s top aide.

“Soon thereafter we received request 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,” Wray said. “And then earlier this month, we received additional information, and we passed that on as well.”

Anthony ScaramucciAnthony ScaramucciAnn Coulter believes Kushner wrote anonymous op-ed bashing Trump Spicer: People at White House are 'burnt out' Scaramucci: John McCain, an inspiration for a day of unity MORE, the bombastic former White House communications director whom Kelly forced out last summer, said the chief of staff “must resign” over the Porter controversy.

“Based on FBI testimony, WH Chief of Staff John Kelly almost certainly knew about credible allegations of domestic abuse against Rob Porter at least 6 months ago - then recently forced others to lie about that timeline,” he tweeted. “Inexcusable.”

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenGoogle says senators' Gmail accounts targeted by foreign hackers Wyden says foreign hackers targeted personal accounts of senators, staffers Some employees' personal data revealed in State Department email breach: report MORE (D-Ore.), who questioned Wray about Porter’s background check, said the handling of the allegations “does not reflect well on the entire White House.”

“Remember, the White House until even a few days ago was saying ‘we are still looking at all of this.’ And clearly the White House has not been straight with the American people on this point, and we’ve got to figure out why,” he said.

But some GOP critics of the White House’s response said they don’t want to see Kelly lose his job over it.

“Gen. Kelly is doing an extraordinarily able job for the president, I hope he continues on with the White House. I think it would be a huge mistake if he were to step down,” Louisiana Sen. John KennedyJohn Neely KennedyMORE (R) told reporters Tuesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, lawmakers from both parties urged Trump to speak out forcefully against domestic violence.

“I haven’t heard the president say something directly about how bad domestic abuse is. To have a spokesperson get out and say something is not good enough,” Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerTrump, GOP regain edge in Kavanaugh battle READ: President Trump’s exclusive interview with Hill.TV The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump slams Sessions in exclusive Hill.TV interview | Kavanaugh accuser wants FBI investigation MORE (D-N.Y.) said.

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstGOP senator divorcing from husband GOP senators introduce bill to preserve ObamaCare's pre-existing conditions protections Pence: Trump’s national security will be as 'dominant' in space as it is on Earth MORE (R-Iowa) echoed that sentiment. 

“I think he needs to send a stronger message. … We need to allow women and men that have been abused to come out and make sure their stories are heard and believed,” Ernst said on CNN. 

Olivia Beavers, Alexander Bolton and Molly K. Hooper contributed.