Why no one stopped the White House from letting Rob Porter in

Porter aboard Air Force One in August of 2017.
Porter aboard Air Force One in August of 2017.
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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Seven days ago, Rob Porter, the former White House staff secretary, resigned after reports that his two ex-wives said he physically abused them. Violent crime allegations should have raised flags for Porter’s security clearance months ago, and the White House’s explanation of why he continued to enjoy his clearance has changed on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.

Why was Porter permitted to handle top-level documents and secrets? Who signed off on his clearance? We’re still no closer to knowing the answers to those details than we were a week ago, and a Congressional committee has just launched an investigation to find out. It turns out there’s very little public information required about who can get cleared to enter the White House and enjoy close physical proximity to the US president.

As in other matters, “historical norms, not laws, govern much of what we think of as appropriate presidential conduct, making it especially hard to rein in a US president,” Quartz wrote earlier in Donald Trump’s presidency. That means the president is free to hire his own children, choose which conflicted business interests he may retain in office—and decide who is allowed into the White House and what classified information they see. While Congress has moved to curb some presidential powers since Donald Trump took office, in many matters he is freely able to buck traditional standards of behavior in both ethics and security.

Here are the questions the Congressional committee, and many US citizens, are seeking answers to:

Did Porter list domestic violence allegations on his security clearance?

US federal government security clearance is supposed to weed out people who could be dangerous to the agencies where they work. It looks at everything from their past personal conduct, to their debt, to their mental health. The standard “F86 form” (pdf) is over 120 pages long.

In the “Police Record” section (pg. 86) the form asks applicants to list any charges, tickets, summons, or arrests over the past seven years, even if they were dismissed or expunged from their record. The form specifically asks whether the incident included “domestic violence or a crime of violence (such as battery or assault) against your child, dependent, cohabitant, spouse, former spouse, or someone with whom you share a child in common.”

Later, the same document asks whether the applicant has ever been “convicted of an offense involving domestic violence.” On June 10, 2010, Porter’s second wife filed a protective order with Virginia police, saying he would not leave their apartment, according to the Daily Mail, which published a photograph of the order. Whether Porter listed that incident on his security form is unclear, but the FBI undoubtedly was aware of that protective order and the cause for its request.

Who signs off on White House security clearances?

US federal government security clearances follow a predictable and somewhat transparent process, security experts tell Quartz. That is, except in the executive branch.

To qualify for a job in, say, the Department of Homeland Security, security clearances are handled internally, and culminate in a government badge that shows clearly whether an employee has “secret” or “top secret” clearance, current and former employees say. The Dept. of Defense holds personnel and clearance information afterward.

At many federal agencies anyone on an “interim security clearance,” as Porter was, would be subject to a security waiver that would need to be signed by a superior every 120 days.

At the White House, though, the FBI conducts background checks, and sends recommendations on to the White House Personnel Security Office. There’s no public explanation of how this is done or how decisions are made. “The rules regarding the management of their background investigation are not out there in the public,” William Henderson, the co-founder of Federal Clearance Assistance Service, who spent over 20 years as an agent working on government clearances, told Quartz.

The White House security office is so low-profile that a switchboard operator had trouble locating a number for it and it doesn’t even appear on a federal government list of White House offices. The press office didn’t answer questions about who is in charge of it. It’s “a pretty obscure operation,” says Henderson, noting that the last time this much attention was paid to it was when Bill Clinton’s childhood friend and White House staffer Vince Foster committed suicide. (After Foster’s 1993 death, the security office head was drawn into an investigation about whether an associate who searched his death had proper security clearance.)

Ultimately, the president has the authority to grant White House clearance to anyone he wants around. “He’s the ultimate authority,” said Henderson, and he can override “whatever the security office in the White House decides.”

Who knew about Porter’s history of alleged abuse?

The FBI completed its investigation into Porter last July, director Christopher Wray said on Feb. 13, then sent an additional report containing to the White House in November. After blaming the FBI for delays earlier, the White House press secretary laid the blame on the “Personnel Security Office.”

“The White House Personnel Security Office, who is the one that makes a recommendation for adjudication, had not finished their process and therefore not made a recommendation to the White House,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary, said.

Making sure Porter had continued admission to the White House, despite his lack of permanent security clearance is a job that likely fell to the Chief of Staff’s office, headed by John Kelly, multiple security experts said. Joe Hagin has been deputy chief of staff for operations since Trump’s inauguration and reportedly was also aware of Porter’s difficulties.

Last November, the White House banned interim security clearances for any new employees, but grandfathered in people like Porter, who at that point had been operating on temporary security clearance for more than 10 months. Whether he saw classified, or top secret, information, remains an ongoing question.

Normally “you can only have access to garden variety classified information with interim security clearance,” Henderson said. But then again, declassification is at the president’s discretion.

Correction: A prior version of this article said DoD handles DHS security clearances. It has been corrected to clarify that clearance investigations are handled internally, and DoD holds the resulting information.