WASHINGTON — John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, told officials in the West Wing on Friday that he was willing to step down over his handling of allegations of spousal abuse against Rob Porter, the staff secretary who resigned in disgrace this week over the accusations, according to two officials aware of the discussions.
The officials emphasized that they did not consider a resignation imminent, and that Kelly — a retired four-star Marine general who early in his tenure often used a threat of quitting as a way to temper President Donald Trump’s behavior — had made no formal offer.
But his suggestion that he would be willing to step down if the president wanted him to reflected the degree to which the scandal surrounding Porter has engulfed the White House.
Two West Wing advisers and a third person painted a picture of a White House staff riven and confused, with fingers being pointed in all directions and the president complaining privately about Kelly.
Some complained that Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel, who learned in January 2017 that Porter had been accused by two ex-wives of abuse, had not been forthcoming enough about what he knew. Others faulted Hope Hicks, the communications director, who had been romantically involved with Porter, for soliciting defenses of him when the accusations became public.
And many, including the president himself, have turned their ire on Kelly for vouching for Porter’s character and falsely asserting that he had moved aggressively to oust him once his misdeeds were discovered.
For all the turmoil, Trump on Friday warmly praised Porter, saying it was a “tough time” for his former aide and noting that Porter had denied the accusations.
“We wish him well,” Trump said of Porter, who was accused of physical and emotional abuse by two ex-wives. The president added, “He also, as you probably know, says he is innocent, and I think you have to remember that.”
“He worked very hard,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office when asked for a comment about Porter. The president said he had only “recently” learned of the allegations against his former aide and was surprised.
“He did a very good job when he was in the White House, and we hope he has a wonderful career, and he will have a great career ahead of him,” Trump said. “But it was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly he’s also very sad now.”
The glowing praise of a staff member accused of serial violence against women was in line with the president’s own denials of sexual impropriety despite accusations from more than a dozen women and his habit of accepting claims of innocence from men facing similar allegations. Among them was Roy Moore, the former Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, who is accused of molesting teenage girls.
Trump’s comments came as a new timeline emerged indicating that top officials knew much earlier than previously disclosed that Porter faced accusations of violence against women.
Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, McGahn, the White House counsel, first learned from Porter himself that there were abuse allegations against him, according to two people briefed on the situation. McGahn’s knowledge of the accusations in January was first reported by The Washington Post.
Porter told him about the allegations because he was concerned that what he characterized as false charges from aggrieved women who were out to destroy him could derail his FBI background check, according to one of the two people briefed on the matter.
Six months later, the FBI told McGahn that accusations had indeed surfaced in Porter’s background check. McGahn opted at that time to let the FBI complete its investigation into any incidents. Porter assured McGahn, another person briefed on the matter said, that the accusations from the former wives were lies.
The emerging timeline illustrates the degree to which Porter, a clean-cut and ambitious former Rhodes scholar and Harvard-educated lawyer, concealed troublesome episodes from his past that would normally be considered disqualifying for a senior White House aide.
Those efforts appear to have succeeded for months, at least in part because of the willingness of a virtually all-male staff in the top echelons of the West Wing to believe a talented male colleague over women they had never met. Lawyers in the counsel’s office believed that the bureau — with its vast investigative powers — was best positioned to look into the accusations, the two people briefed on the matter said, and believed it was not their job to investigate conduct that took place long before an official began working in the administration.
That represents a sharp break with past practice, in which White House counsels undertook elaborate vetting of senior advisers before they were hired — and looked into any serious allegations that surfaced thereafter.
In November, the White House heard back from the FBI. Senior White House officials, including Kelly, Joe Hagin, deputy chief of staff, and McGahn received word from the bureau that the allegations were credible and that Porter was not likely to pass his background check.
But while McGahn privately informed Porter and encouraged him to consider moving on, according to one of the two people briefed, no action was taken to immediately terminate him. Rather, McGahn requested that the FBI complete its investigation and come back to the White House with a final recommendation, a process that could take months.
Several White House aides described confusion among the staff about why Kelly and others had initially rallied so strongly to defend Porter, and some suggested that Kelly had tried to cover up what he knew.
Others insisted that while he was aware of the broad strokes of accusations against Porter, and while he could have made more of an effort to learn about them, he trusted the staff secretary’s denials and was describing an accurate timeline about what he knew.
On Thursday night, a person close to Kelly said the chief of staff had learned the details of what happened with Porter only “40 minutes before he threw him out” Wednesday morning, as pictures of Porter’s bruised ex-wife began circulating.
But on Wednesday afternoon, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, White House press secretary, and other aides maintained to reporters that Porter had not been pushed out, and that he was leaving of his own accord, issuing a statement saying that both the president and Kelly had “full confidence” in his performance. On Friday morning at the White House, Kelly appeared to be trying to paint his handling of the matter in a more favorable light. At the end of the senior staff meeting, Kelly volunteered that he had something he wanted to “clarify,” according to people with knowledge of his remarks.
Kelly went on to say that he had learned of Porter’s true situation less than an hour before he removed him from his job. Two people familiar with the comments said that most of the staff appeared incredulous; one person said several people in the room knew that the timeline Kelly had presented was false.
As the meeting broke up, Hicks loudly complained about what had transpired, a person briefed on the meeting said.