By Abby Phillip, Dan Merica and MJ Lee, CNN
Updated: Sat, 03 Mar 2018 04:32:29 GMT
White House chief of staff John Kelly continued to misrepresent his handling of the dismissal of former top aide Rob Porter on Friday, defiantly obfuscating on exactly what he knew -- and when -- about the extent of the abuse allegations against Porter's two ex-wives. In some instances, Kelly even directly contradicted some of the White House's public statements delivered last month.
In a rare gathering with reporters in his White House office, Kelly mostly defended his own conduct and insisted that he never considered resigning over the fallout. Porter's two ex-wives accused President Donald Trump's former staff secretary of years of relentless verbal, emotional and physical domestic abuse -- all of which Porter denied.
"I have absolutely nothing to even consider resigning over," Kelly said, even as he acknowledged that senior White House aides "didn't cover ourselves in glory" in how they responded to the scandal.
But Kelly's explanation did not fully comport with CNN's extensive reporting on the Porter scandal.
The new timeline presented by Kelly doesn't conform with what Kelly told a roomful of White House staffers at the end of the grueling week when Porter left the White House.
According to sources in the room, Kelly told the staffers that he took action on Porter within 40 minutes of seeing the photos that had surfaced overnight showing one of Porter's ex-wives with a black eye she claims she got because of Porter.
Even sources inside the White House were befuddled by Kelly's latest explanation. One source with knowledge of the situation told CNN that people inside the White House were stunned by Kelly's reflections on the Porter saga, stating flatly that the chief of staff was not telling the truth. Another said staffers were "puzzled" by his comments.
Kelly told reporters that he learned of "a serious accusation" against Porter on February 6, the day Daily Mail reporters began asking the White House for reaction.
He described what he first became aware of as "just the accusation of a messy divorce and maybe ... emotional abuse."
That claim was refuted by David Martosko, political editor of the Daily Mail, the publication that first broke the news about abuse allegations against Porter. Martosko said the first claim he brought the White House was from Jennifer Willoughby, one of Porter's ex-wives, who claimed Porter "physically dragged her, naked, out of a shower."
The Daily Mail also asked about an incident in which Willoughby filed a protective order against Porter after he appeared to have punched a glass panel on her front door.
"John Kelly is defending his inaction on Rob Porter by claiming that the first accusation brought to the White House was of only 'emotional abuse.' Untrue," Martosko wrote.
Kelly added that the White House learned later that afternoon, around 6 p.m. ET, that there were allegations from a second ex-wife who claimed Porter physically abused her.
"We put out a statement of support for him and an hour later now find out there's a second report -- still not in the press, still no pictures -- just an inquiry by someone probably in this room that said 'Hey, his first wife of 15 years ago says that there was physical abuse,' " Kelly said.
He said that he spoke to Porter after the second allegation and insisted that at this point, Porter had "already resigned."
"I just talked to Rob again to make sure he knew he had resigned," Kelly told reporters.
But the White House did not disclose Porter was leaving until the afternoon briefing the following day.
The Porter scandal embroiled the White House in a lengthy and unsuccessful clean-up effort to explain why the White House initially defended Porter in statements even as allegations of domestic abuse were publicly made against him.
For example, Kelly stood by his statement that Porter was "someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character" even after photos of the domestic abuse against Colbie Holderness was made public.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders also said at the time at a White House briefing: "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."
She added: "He is going to be leaving the White House. It won't be immediate, but he is resigning from the White House, but is going to stay on to ensure that there's a smooth transition moving forward."
Kelly said during the briefing that he released those statements based on his personal interactions with Porter in the White House and blamed a mix up over the timing of when Porter would be leaving his post. Sanders initially said at the time that Porter would be leaving his post within weeks.
Willoughby, Porter's second ex-wife, said Kelly's initial defense of Porter was "insulting to anyone suffering in an abusive situation now."
"My only comment is the sadness I felt when Kelly defended his first statement of defense of Rob saying they thought it was 'only emotional abuse,' " Willoughby said. "He changed the statement after realizing it was 'physical abuse.' That is insulting to anyone suffering in an abusive situation now. Emotional and psychological abuse is abuse!"
Yet to hear from the White House
Holderness and Willoughby both told CNN on Friday that they have yet to hear from anyone at the White House -- despite White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insisting weeks earlier that "above all, the President supports victims of domestic violence."
The chief of staff told reporters during the briefing that he did not learn about the accusations until the Daily Mail approached the White House for a comment on February 6. But a source inside the White House told CNN when the scandal broke that White House counsel Don McGahn, Kelly and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin were also made aware of the domestic issues in November, the source said. The White House contends that the "full nature" of the allegations did not come out until later.
Kelly also provided reporters with a more fulsome time line to the Porter scandal.
The FBI, Kelly said, first sent over information to the White House security office about Porter last March and later sent more information in July, which is what Christopher Wray testified before Congress.
The security office then asked for more information, which the FBI then sent back in November, Kelly added.
"Chris Wray was right," Kelly said. "It was a shock for me, certainly because I thought the information that came over was in November."
Kelly insisted that the White House security office did not flag issues with Porter's file to either him or McGahn before the news reports were published in February 2018.
Kelly said that by the time Porter left the White House in February, his security clearance had not been fully adjudicated one way or another by the security office.