Questions swirl about aide's security clearance

The abrupt departure of White House aide Rob Porter this week has fueled questions about his security clearance and whether he should have been able to handle the classified material that reaches President TrumpDonald John TrumpO'Rourke: Trump driving global, U.S. economy into recession Manchin: Trump has 'golden opportunity' on gun reforms Objections to Trump's new immigration rule wildly exaggerated MORE’s desk. 

Porter resigned on Wednesday amid allegations of domestic abuse from two ex-wives after more than a year serving as the gatekeeper to the Oval Office, handling and vetting scores of presidential memos, nominations and other documents.

The FBI became aware of the accusations through correspondence with Porter’s former spouses, which resulted in him not receiving a full security clearance. 

The revelations have triggered questions about why Porter was allowed to continue to serve in the gatekeeper role in the first place, given his possible susceptibility to blackmail. 

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“We never would have allowed someone to hold that position knowing the history that he had,” said Don Gips, who served as head of personnel on former President Obama’s transition team. 

The developments have also sparked questions about who at the White House knew about the abuse accusations against Porter and when they became aware of them. Heavy scrutiny has fallen on White House counsel Don McGahn and chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, for whom Porter was a key ally.

“The real question is, when somebody knew the decision had been made not to grant clearances, what happened?” said Steven Cash, a lawyer at the firm Day Pitney. 

The controversy has also spurred scrutiny of the broader handling of security clearances within the White House, with reports that dozens of employees are awaiting permanent clearances. 

Porter had been operating with an interim security clearance as the FBI continued its background investigation, the White House said Thursday. 

“We should not short-circuit an investigation just because allegations are made, unless they could compromise national security or interfere with operations at the White House,” White House spokesman Raj Shah said.

One former official said that, under normal circumstances, the White House would have run a name check on Porter as he was joining the administration, which would have surely turned up record of a protective order that one of Porter’s former wives, Jennifer Willoughby, filed against him in 2010.

“If there was a court record about this, they should have known about this immediately,” the former official said. 

“Especially if you’re going to give someone an interim clearance,” the former official continued. “The FBI or the White House counsel’s office would have taken those initial steps before initiating an interim clearance.” 

Porter, who has denied the allegations of abuse, would have also been required to disclose the record of the restraining order on an SF 86, a standard form that government officials in national security positions are required to fill out. 

It remains unclear whether Porter disclosed the allegations on the form. Lying on an SF 86 could trigger criminal prosecution. 

The White House said that Kelly became “fully aware” of the allegations against Porter on Wednesday, as accounts from Willoughby and Colbie Holderness, Porter’s other former spouse, emerged in the press.

The New York Times reported that Kelly, McGahn, and another White House official knew of the allegations to some extent since the end of last fall, including that the matter was preventing Porter from receiving a full security clearance. 

Separately, The Washington Post reported that McGahn knew as far back as last January that Porter’s former wives were going to level accusations against him that would hamper his ability to get a clearance, but allowed him to serve as staff secretary.

Former officials say that someone high up at the White House — possibly at the level of White House counsel or chief of staff — at some point made the judgment to give Porter the interim clearance to perform his duties.

“There’s a judgment call there,” said one former official. “Once you have it, you can function as if you have all rights and responsibilities and powers of that clearance.”

Both Willoughby and Holderness have told the press they were first interviewed by the FBI last January as part of Porter’s background investigation. 

“I shared with the FBI all of the details that I shared in previous articles, including access to a protective order from June of 2010, and police calls that I had made to our home,” Willoughby told NBC News. 

Last January, Holderness emailed FBI investigators photographs of herself with a black eye that she says Porter had given her, according to the Times.

Porter would have needed broad access to classified information in order to assume his day-to-day responsibilities, according to those who have held the position in past administrations.

“All the paperwork that goes to the president goes through the office,” Lisa Brown, who served as White House staff secretary during the Obama administration, told The Hill. “There is a steady volume of classified information that is going through the office.”

In his role, Porter would, for instance, be responsible for handling memos on classified briefings about ongoing military operations, as well as routine updates on sanctions lists and other sensitive national security information. While the National Security Council has its own executive secretary function to vet internal materials, any memos or documents that emerge from the council would inevitably have to pass through the staff secretary’s office.

Porter would also be responsible for handling a large amount of unclassified presidential correspondence, including memos on budget negotiations, nominations and other matters.

Officials who held the position in previous administrations operated with what is known as a “Top Secret (TS)/ sensitive compartmented information (SCI) clearance” that affords access to top-secret and sensitive compartmentalized information.

While secret and even top-secret clearances are rather prevalent among federal employees and contractors, there are far fewer individuals who hold the TS/SCI clearance, which affords access to documents at the highest levels of classification. 

The White House Office of Security is responsible for issuing secret and top-secret clearances for White House personnel, said Mark Zaid, a national security lawyer, while the CIA typically handles the SCI component.

Agencies with adjudicating authorities of clearances are required to certify that is in the interest of the national security of the United States to award a clearance, which includes considering issues like an individual’s trustworthiness or susceptibility to blackmail.

Willoughby told NBC on Thursday that she believed Porter could be blackmailed based on her experiences in their marriage.

On Thursday, a cadre of Senate Democrats pressed the acting inspector general of the intelligence community to investigate the Trump administration’s process for vetting senior officials for security clearances.

House Democrats had already raised questions about the White House’s security clearance process following reports that Jared KushnerJared Corey KushnerDick Cheney to attend fundraiser supporting Trump reelection: report Trump Jr. dismisses conflicts of interest, touts projects in Indonesia Trump administration releases new 'public charge' rule making it easier to reject immigrants MORE, Trump’s senior adviser, was still operating with an interim security clearance as of last month.

Since joining the Trump administration in January 2017, Porter accumulated considerable standing, often accompanying Trump on official presidential trips. The aide is said to have had a hand in developing the State of the Union address that the president delivered last week.

Porter was one of the more experienced aides in Trump’s White House, having worked for Republican Sens. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTrump to award racing legend Roger Penske with Presidential Medal of Freedom Trump awards Presidential Medal of Freedom to economist, former Reagan adviser Arthur Laffer Second ex-Senate staffer charged in aiding doxxing of GOP senators MORE (Utah), Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanSchumer blasts 'red flag' gun legislation as 'ineffective cop out' McConnell faces pressure to bring Senate back for gun legislation Shaken Portman urges support for 'red flag' laws after Ohio shooting MORE (Ohio), and Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeMcConnell, allies lean into Twitter, media 'war' Conservatives buck Trump over worries of 'socialist' drug pricing Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid MORE (Utah). Porter graduated from Harvard Law School and is a Rhodes scholar. 

Porter’s departure is viewed as a particular blow to Kelly, for whom the staff secretary was an ally in bringing discipline to the White House. 

The White House has taken heavy criticism for its handling of the Porter controversy. Shah acknowledged Thursday that “we all could have done better” dealing with the situation.  

Kelly, who was criticized for initially defending Porter amid the allegations, issued a statement late Wednesday saying he was “shocked” by the allegations and that “there is no place for domestic violence in our society.” 

Trump on Friday said he found out about the allegations “very recently” and was “surprised” by them. He praised Porter for his work and wished him well in his career.