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Who Knew What When At The White House

Feb 14, 2018
Originally published on February 14, 2018 9:16 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today marks one week since former White House aide Rob Porter announced his resignation amid domestic violence allegations, and it remains unclear who knew what and when about this case in the White House. Let's back up and remember how we got here. Monday, the White House indicated that the process for getting Rob Porter a permanent security clearance was still not done when he resigned last week.

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SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: We let the process play out. It was ongoing, hadn't been completed. And beyond that and the statement I just gave you, I don't have anything else to add.

MARTIN: Then yesterday, FBI Director Christopher Wray seemed to contradict that.

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CHRISTOPHER WRAY: What I can tell you is that the FBI submitted a partial report on the investigation in question in March and then a completed background investigation in late July.

MARTIN: The White House has since tried to clarify that the process didn't end with that FBI investigation, that the clearance process then moved on to different people and offices in the White House. So even though this whole picture is muddy, are we getting any clarity on how voters, the president's base included, might view this heading into the 2018 campaign season? NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson is with us. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.

MARTIN: Let's just establish why any of what we just outlined matters, about Rob Porter. Essentially, this is about whether people in the White House, primarily Chief of Staff John Kelly, knew about the domestic violence allegations against Porter and chose to turn a blind eye, right?

LIASSON: Right. This matters on a lot of different levels. One is this very serious issue of domestic violence. This isn't sexual harassment. This is domestic violence complete with restraining orders and pictures of black eyes. But then on another level, did John Kelly do the right thing? He says everything was all done right. Other White House officials undercut and contradict his claims. And there's a lot of leaking going on, including White House officials telling reporters that Kelly is a big fat liar.

MARTIN: What have we heard from President Trump on this, or, what have we not heard from him?

LIASSON: President Trump has been remarkably silent about the core issue of this scandal, which is domestic abuse. He passed up several opportunities to respond to reporters' questions about whether he believes Rob Porter's two ex-wives' stories. He also hasn't tweeted about this. He has expressed his support and admiration for Porter. He said he hopes Porter has a great career in front of him. He's tweeted how horrible it is that mere accusations can ruin people's lives. And he's really left female staffers, like Sarah Sanders, like Kellyanne Conway, to insist that he does support victims of any type of violence.

On Tuesday, Sanders even pointed out that Trump's 2019 budget fully funds the Violence Against Women Act. But the president has complained about the lack of due process, and what's interesting about that is his interest in due process appears to be pretty partisan. He cared about due process for Roy Moore but not for Al Franken, or Huma Abedin, or Hillary Clinton or the Central Park Five, Democrats, yes...

MARTIN: Young black men in the Central Park Five case.

LIASSON: Right.

MARTIN: So this story has legs, as they say. It's not dying down even after a week of coverage. Is there something inherently different about this particular staff shake-up?

LIASSON: Well, there's some things that are different. There have been a lot of scandals in the first 13 months of the Trump presidency, but unlike the other ones, in this case the president doesn't seem to have a foil here. He isn't blaming the deep state for Porter's demise. He's not going after the FBI. He's not attacking the Democrats. This scandal seems to be purely self-generated and self-perpetuated. But there's also something familiar about it because once again the White House is tangled up in knots over a story they could have gotten ahead of.

And once again, just as in the Mike Flynn scandal, a top White House aide got fired long after White House officials knew about his problems, but only after the allegations made it into the media. And I think it's a sign of a White House that has an insular, bunker mentality where the first instinct is to protect someone who's been loyal, like Mike Flynn, or someone really competent and professional, like Rob Porter.

MARTIN: So anything that's happening right now is viewed through the context of the midterm elections. It's impossible not to do that. So what will the political consequences of this be?

LIASSON: We don't know. But the White House certainly thinks there might be some consequences. Otherwise, why would Kellyanne Conway and Sarah Sanders be going to such great lengths to portray the president as a champion of victims of domestic abuse? This isn't a he-said, she-said case of harassment. This is a story of domestic violence complete with the pictures of the black eye and restraining orders. And I think the president has lost some support over this year, particularly with women. Depending on how long this scandal drags on could have repercussions particularly in a year when women, especially Democratic women, are super energized.

MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.