Vice President Mike Pence became the latest — and most prominent — White House official to make a startling assertion in the midst of the Rob Porter scandal.
Vice President Mike Pence became the latest — and most prominent — White House official to make a startling assertion in the midst of the scandal surrounding former staff secretary Rob Porter and officials who were slow to act on allegations of domestic abuse against him.
Pence said the White House "could have handled" its response better.
It was the latest in a series of stunning admissions. Pence, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and deputy press secretary Raj Shah have all admitted in public venues that the White House didn't do its best job in handling the Porter fallout.
That's coming from an administration where, as a person close to the White House told Business Insider, the modus operandi is to never admit fault. No matter what.
The gravity of the Porter scandal seems to have outweighed that mantra. Porter, who had an important behind-the-scenes job at the White House, resigned last week amid abuse allegations from two ex-wives who provided publications with evidence of the alleged abuse. Colbie Holderness, Porter's first ex-wife, provided photos to news outlets of a black eye she says he gave her. Jennifer Willoughby, Porter's second ex-wife, provided a copy of a 2010 protective order she filed against him. Porter has denied the allegations.
The White House was slow to react, to say the least. When the story was set to break, White House chief of staff John Kelly released a statement defending Porter, only to release a second statement hours later that expressed shock at photographic evidence of the alleged abuse published in the Daily Mail. Other staffer such as Sanders defended Porter even after it was reported that he had resigned from the administration.
It soon became clear that the administration had known about the allegations, though possibly not the photographic evidence, for months. On Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the bureau alerted the White House to problems with Porter's background check months ago.
Contradictory accounts were presented about Kelly's handling of the allegations against Porter. Two senior officials told The Washington Post that Kelly held a meeting in which he instructed top staffers to describe the lead-up to Porter's resignation from the White House in a contradictory way to the administration's previous accounts. He told the staffers to say he took action to remove Porter within 40 minutes of first learning of credible allegations.
Other reporting suggested that Kelly was aware of the allegations for weeks at the very least, as they were preventing Porter from being able to obtain a permanent security clearance. On Sunday, the news website Axios reported that Porter has told associates he "never misrepresented anything" to Kelly, contradicting the chief of staff's statements on what he knew and when.
Meanwhile, top outside advisers to the president have been highly critical of the administration's response to the allegations — zeroing in on Kelly in particular. Former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have all cast doubt on Kelly's narrative, with Scaramucci even calling for his ouster from the administration.
That all proceeded Pence's Wednesday comments.
"Well, this administration has no tolerance for domestic violence, nor should any American," he said at an Axios event. "As I said, and as the White House has said, I think the White House could have handled this better. I still feel that way."
It came a day after Sanders made similar remarks.
"I think we're looking at that internally, and agree that there are things we could have done better," she said. "And we're going to continue to look at the process and the role we all played, and how we can do it better — but not just in this. I think, every day, we come to work and we hope to do a better job than we did the day before. ... As we recognized last week, there were some things we could have done better, and we're certainly going to look at every single instance, in every single thing we do, how we can always do it a little bit better than we did the day before."
The first to make this suggestion was Shah, who addressed reporters at a White House briefing the day after the Porter scandal first started to roil the White House last week.
"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," he said.
Certainly, such a statement was viewed as a bit of an "understatement" by some.
Take Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, for example, who said as much to NBC's Chuck Todd on Sunday's "Meet the Press."
"They could have done a lot better particularly with the Rob Porter situation," he said.
At the same time, President Donald Trump was reportedly unhappy with Shah's initial comment, CNN reported. By Wednesday, however, he insisted that he is "totally opposed" to domestic violence as the scandal moved past the one-week mark.
"I am totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind," Trump said on Wednesday in the Oval Office. "Everyone knows that and it almost wouldn't even have to be said. So now you hear it. But you all know it."
One person who apparently did not think the White House could have done better was Kelly. The crisis has only seemed to prompt him to dig in and defend his stature.
He told The Wall Street Journal on Monday that he thought the administration had done nothing wrong in its handling of the Porter fallout.
"It was all done right," he insisted.