Chief of staff expresses regret over security protocol

By Tara McKelvey
BBC White House Reporter

image source, Getty Images
image captionJohn Kelly serves as President Trump's chief of staff

In an unusually frank conversation with reporters, the White House chief of staff tries to reset the narrative on how the White House wrestle with the issue of security clearances.

sheds light on how he and his colleagues wrestle with the issue of security clearances.

John Kelly, President Donald Trump's chief of staff, said he was shocked at what aide Rob Porter had done before he started working for the White House.

Porter, a former White House staff secretary, left the administration last month after being accused of spousal abuse by two ex-wives.

"He conducted himself as the ultimate gentleman," while in the White House, Kelly told a dozen or so reporters who'd gathered in his office on Friday, describing the way that Porter acted during the time he worked for the administration. "I never saw him mad or abusive."

The White House chief of staff said that when he heard the most serious allegations against Porter in early February, he got rid of him. Porter made it clear that he understood he'd lost his job and also the reasons for his ouster, a senior administration official explained to me.

But US media have reported there's evidence that Kelly knew at least the broad-stroke details of the allegations against Porter as far back as November 2016.

The following day, Porter returned to work and tried to figure out a way to remain in his position, a senior administration official told me. Porter spoke with colleagues about staying on - though he'd just been fired, the source added.

Porter's dark past, apparently tolerated by his bosses for a period of time, and his brazen attempt to keep his job despite the allegations were made possible in part because of flaws in the White House system of security clearances.

Kelly spoke with unusual candour on Friday to discuss the administration's issues with security clearances. The conversation was initially described as off the record, and then he agreed to speak on the record with reporters.

image source, AFP
image captionMr Porter (R) with White House senior adviser Jared Kushner (L) and chief of staff John Kelly (C)

He wanted to reassure the journalists - and by extension the public - that things were fine in the West Wing. The system for vetting individuals and keeping the nation's secrets was imperfect, he admitted, but he explained that it was being fixed.

The problems with security clearances reflect a larger issue with the administration.

The president said he'd blow things up in Washington, and he started by hiring a new crew. An unusual number of people who'd never worked in government and had not previously gone through a vetting process were suddenly placed in positions of immense power.

Many were working with interim security clearances.

Getting permanent clearance takes time. The vetting process is used to identify problems in an individual's background before granting them one. These issues can range from drug addiction to unpaid credit card bills, anything that could provide an opening for coercion by foreign agents.

Every administration struggles with the task of sorting out security clearances. But as Steven Aftergood, the head of the Federation of American Scientists' project on government secrecy, says, the problem has been especially acute for Kelly and others in the West Wing.

For months Porter was allowed to work in the White House on an interim security clearance. Recently Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and senior adviser, was stripped of his top-secret security clearance. Yet he remains in his position at the White House.

media caption'We all could have done better' a White House spokesman said of physical abuse claims

The number of people working with interim security clearances for relatively long periods of time - and the frequent ousters - is virtually unprecedented. As Aftergood points out: "This kind of upheaval and uncertainty is unusual."

Critics of the Trump White House say the system of security clearances is politicised - in a way that's unique to this administration.

Mark Zaid, a lawyer who regularly handles security-clearance cases, calls it "Trump-politicisation". He says Kelly practised "favouritism" by allowing individuals to work in high-level positions for a relatively long period of time without permanent clearances.

On Friday, Kelly tried to defend how he'd handled the matter of security clearances and the resignation of Porter.

"I have absolutely nothing to even consider resigning over," he said.

When he spoke about Porter's ouster, Kelly put his hands in his pockets and walked to a window. Outside the wind howled.

At one point Kelly picked up a sheet of paper from his desk, a cover sheet used to hide classified documents. It was marked with the word "SECRET". He waved the piece of paper in the air.

image source, Reuters
image captionRob Porter, pictured holding the document for President Trump, was accused of abuse by his two ex-wives

He spoke about the issue of security clearances with three aides in his office: Raj Shah, a spokesman; Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary; and Zachary Fuentes, an assistant. They interrupted him frequently, trying to clarify the circumstances surrounding Porter's ouster.

At one point an aide put several sheets of paper on Kelly's desk with the words, "Tuesday timeline" highlighted in yellow, referring to when the Daily Mail first printed the allegations against Porter on 6 February. The paper showed the sequence of events during that week Porter left.

The chief of staff acknowledged that they had made mistakes. Describing that tense week, he said: "We didn't cover ourselves in glory in terms of how we handled that."

Kelly, says Aftergood, has been "chastened" by his experience. Since then Kelly, saying individuals must be vetted before working at the White House.