The White House has admitted that it mishandled allegations of domestic abuse against a senior official who was forced to resign on Wednesday.
John Kelly, the chief of staff, and press secretary Sarah Sanders at first defended staff secretary Rob Porter after media reports in which two ex-wives accused him of assault.
But the mood rapidly shifted with the publication of photos showing one of the women with a black eye, making his departure as a key member of West Wing staff inevitable.
“I think it’s fair to say that we all could have done better over the last few hours, or last few days, in dealing with this situation,” deputy press secretary Raj Shah, making his debut on the White House podium, told reporters.
“But, you know, this was a Rob Porter that I and many others have dealt with, that Sarah had dealt with, that other officials including the chief of staff had dealt with, and the emerging reports were not reflective of the individual we had come to know.”
Porter’s demise makes him the latest in a long line of White House casualties. Critics have suggested the case raises questions over the staff vetting process, Kelly’s judgment and the tone set by Donald Trump, who himself still faces multiple allegations of sexual misconduct.
Shah said when the allegations about domestic abuse were made to the FBI, Porter was working at the White House under an interim security clearance while his background check was being completed. He had access to classified materials.
“The allegations against Rob Porter are serious and deeply troubling,” the spokesman acknowledged. “He did deny them. The incidents took place long before he joined the White House. Therefore they were investigated as part of the background check as this process is meant for such allegations. It was not completed and Rob Porter has since resigned.”
Kelly had initially issued a statement that strongly backed Porter as a “man of true integrity”. But when the photos emerged, he released a second statement saying he was “shocked” by the new allegations but stood by his initial praise of Porter.
Kelly became “fully aware” of the allegations against Porter on Wednesday, Shah added. “I do know, for instance, that he had not seen images prior to the statement on Tuesday night.”
Shah said Trump was not aware of the claims until he saw a news report on Tuesday night and was informed of the resignation on Wednesday. “He was surprised. He, like many of us, did not see that in Rob Porter, did not see what these allegations have brought forward. So he was surprised by it, he was disheartened by it and he was saddened by it.”
Shah, who began his maiden briefing two-and-three-quarter hours later than scheduled, insisted that Trump still has confidence in Kelly and his communications director, Hope Hicks, who had recused herself from “some matters” regarding Porter.
Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, told the Daily Mail that Porter choked and punched her during the five years they were married. His second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, also told the Daily Mail how Porter once dragged her naked and wet from the shower to yell at her. She filed a protective order against him.
Porter, a 40-year-old Harvard graduate, has described the allegations against him as “outrageous” and “simply false”.