Rob Porter’s Security Nonclearance

Alan Zendell, February 10, 2018

Sherlock Holmes (aka, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) famously said, “…when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Consider the sordid case of Rob Porter’s temporary security clearance.

It’s impossible that while the FBI has been aware of the very credible allegations of spousal (and now girlfriend) abuse for more than a year, no one on the White House Staff found out until this week. It’s impossible that Chief of Staff John Kelly, given his well-known concern for order and security would not have wondered why the FBI hadn’t granted Rob Porter a security clearance in over a year. It’s also impossible that General Kelly wouldn’t have been seriously concerned about that considering Porter’s daily access to highly sensitive information.

Holmes would have approached the issue logically. Members of the White House staff were surely aware of Porter’s checkered past. John Kelly had to have demanded an explanation of the delay in granting him clearance. Kelly understands as well as anyone that if Porter was guilty of the things three women accused him of, he would have been a likely target for blackmail. All his instincts about security would have been setting off alarm bells in his head, yet he not only did not restrict Porter’s access to secret documents, he encouraged him to stand by his denials. And he allowed Hope Hicks, a woman who was romantically involved with Porter to frame the White House’s defense of him to the media.

Holmes would have been certain that was all true, but he wouldn’t have let the matter rest until he understood why Kelly acted as he did and the FBI has allowed Porter’s temporary clearance to stand so long, and we shouldn’t either. Every American should be extremely concerned about the circumstances that would cause someone like Kelly to look the other way. It’s certainly not what we’d expect of a four-star general.

One theory is that he simply liked Porter. Jennifer Willoughby, his second ex-wife, even while describing the bone-chilling details of their abusive marriage, described Porter as smart, personable, and competent – in his work life. She wasn’t surprised that he got on so well at work because no one there saw the other side of his personality. She said he was completely different at home, a very troubled man who was unable to control his flashes of anger in an intimate relationship.

I believe that, but I have to ask, in the highly stressful environment of the West Wing, which if one tenth of what Michael Wolff wrote is true, was an emotional pressure cooker, wouldn’t a man like General Kelly who is supposed to be an expert at assessing his subordinates have noticed something? Surely someone as troubled as Porter apparently is who cannot control his anger and frustration with people he loves would have revealed some aspect of that to the Chief of Staff who heavily relied on him.

Should we believe Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah’s contention that until the photographs of the battered face of Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness appeared, Kelly simply didn’t believe the allegations of abuse? That’s certainly possible, but if that’s true, it’s hard to see Kelly regaining the stature and respect he once had. I think he’d have no choice but to resign. Kelly is, if anything, honorable, so the fact that he didn’t suggests a different explanation.

Holmes would deduce that Porter was a favorite of the president. That’s an easy one, actually. The proof is that he was still there after a year in a position that had him interacting with Trump daily on the most sensitive issues. There’s no way the president would have kept a relatively invisible staffer who most people never heard of around that long if he didn’t really like him, which means, knowing Trump’s history, that Porter was a well-behaved sycophant and yes man around him.

That means he was also the perfect foil for General Kelly, whose principal charge was maintaining order and controlling the flow of information that reached the president. In that context one might see the general weighing priorities. As long as Porter behaved himself in the West Wing, Kelly might have seen him as too valuable to let go, valuable enough in fact to issue glowing statements to the media about what a fine fellow he was.

Of course, there’s a more cynical possibility. Perhaps the president has inadvertently set the tone for situations like this. Perhaps his own treatment of women and his apparent belief that even when charged with the most egregious misconduct, denial is a sufficient defense, has rubbed off on his staff.

There’s also a frighteningly dangerous possibility – the politicization of the security clearance process. When I underwent a security review it was understood that the FBI didn’t play games with their investigations. It was deadly serious business during the Cold War, and we all knew we wouldn’t keep our jobs if we failed the review. Is it possible that things have changed so much since then that the president who cares so much about national security that he wants a border wall would tolerate political pressure to approve security clearances?

I hope not.

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