FBI contradicts White House on probe of former aide Porter

FBI Director Christopher Wray (L) and CIA Director Mike Pompeo (2nd L) testify on worldwide threats during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on Tuesday. (AFP)
Updated 14 February 2018
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FBI contradicts White House on probe of former aide Porter

WASHINGTON: Contradicting the White House, the FBI said Tuesday it gave the Trump administration information on multiple occasions last year about a top aide accused of domestic abuse by his two ex-wives, and the investigation wrapped up in January.
That account by FBI Director Christopher Wray challenged the White House assertion that Rob Porter’s background “investigation was ongoing” and officials first learned the extent of accusations against him only last week, just before he abruptly resigned.
Wray’s testimony marked the latest development in a scandal that has called into question the judgment of senior members of the White House staff, put new stress on the administration’s already strained credibility with the public, and drawn accusations of tone-deaf handling of abuse allegations.
The week-long fallout from the allegations against Porter, President Donald Trump’s staff secretary, has thrown the West Wing into chaos not seen since the earliest months of the administration and has sparked new rounds of recriminations inside the White House.
Privately, officials acknowledge that the public timeline offered last week — that the administration first learned of the ex-wives’ charges against Porter last Tuesday — was flawed at best.
Several senior officials, including chief of staff John Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn, were aware of the broad allegations against Porter for months, officials said.
Kelly found out after requesting an update on the large number of senior staffers operating without full security clearances, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions. McGahn told Kelly last fall there was concern about information in the background investigation involving Porter’s ex-wives, the official said, and Kelly expressed surprise that Porter had previously been married.
Despite that, Porter took on an increasingly central role in the West Wing and was under consideration to serve as Trump’s deputy chief of staff, two officials said.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Monday, “The White House had not received any specific papers regarding the completion of that background check.” Yet Wray testified that the FBI sent the White House its preliminary report in March 2017 and its completed investigation in late July. Soon after that, the agency received a request for a follow-up inquiry, and it provided that information in November. Porter was interviewed about the allegations in September, an official said.
“And then we administratively closed the file in January, and then earlier this month we received some additional information and we passed that on as well,” Wray added in his congressional testimony Tuesday, without elaboration.
The FBI does not make recommendations about whether to grant or deny a security clearance, officials said, leaving the determination up to the employee’s agency, in Porter’s case, the White House.
Sanders maintained Tuesday that her statement about an ongoing investigation was accurate because Porter’s clearance hadn’t received a final sign-off from the White House Office of Personnel Security.
“We find those statements to be consistent with one another,” she said.
The White House has refused to divulge the number of staff members who still do not have full clearances, though the list includes Jared Kushner, the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law. Kushner’s attorney, Abbe Lowell, said in a statement that “there are a dozen or more people at Mr. Kushner’s level” who are working without full security clearances.
Separately, Trump’s intelligence chief called for top-to-bottom reform of the security clearance process, which allowed Porter to operate in his job for more than a year with only an interim clearance.
“We have a broken system and I think everybody’s come to agree with that now,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told The Associated Press. He called for limits on the information made accessible to those with temporary clearances — a practice that is currently not followed in the West Wing, an official said.
Meanwhile, Colbie Holderness, Porter’s first wife, pushed back against comments made by presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway that seemed to suggest strong women can’t be victims of domestic violence.
Conway, in a weekend interview on CNN, said she had no reason to disbelieve accounts by Holderness and another ex-wife that Porter had abused them. But when asked if she was concerned for top White House aide Hope Hicks, who reportedly was dating Porter, Conway said no because “I’ve rarely met somebody so strong with such excellent instincts and loyalty and smarts.”
Conway went on to say that “there’s no question” that domestic violence “knows no demographic or geographic bounds,” and she understands there is a stigma that surrounds these issues.
In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, Holderness wrote that Conway’s first statement “implies that those who have been in abusive relationships are not strong. I beg to differ.”
Porter resigned after Holderness and his second ex-wife, Jennifer Willoughby, came forward with allegations of emotional and physical abuse. Porter has denied harming his former partners.
The White House approach has drawn criticism even from Trump’s own party.
“I think you can’t justify it,” Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst told CNN about a report that the White House arranged for Porter to defend himself privately to reporters after the allegations surfaced. “You can’t justify that.”


Italy tells rescue ship to take migrants to the Netherlands

Updated 28 min 12 sec ago
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Italy tells rescue ship to take migrants to the Netherlands

  • Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini: “You have intentionally not listened to Italian or Libyan authorities. Good. Then take this load of human beings to the Netherlands.”
  • Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Lennart Wegewijs: “They have a Dutch flag, but they are not registered in the Netherlands, and therefore are not under Dutch state flag responsibility.”

ROME: Italy’s anti-immigrant interior minister accused a German charity on Thursday of ignoring coast guard orders when its Dutch-flagged ship picked up 226 migrants off Libya’s coast and he said they should be taken to the Netherlands not Italy.
Earlier this month Matteo Salvini pledged to no longer let charity ships offload rescued migrants in Italy, leaving the Gibraltar-flagged Aquarius stranded at sea for several days with more than 600 migrants until Spain offered them safe haven.
On Thursday, Mission Lifeline, a charity based in Dresden, Germany, pulled migrants off two rubber boats in international waters even though it was told by Italy that Libya’s coast guard was coming to get them, a spokesman for the charity said. They would not have been safe if taken back to Libya, he said.
Salvini, also leader of the anti-immigrant League party, addressed the charity in a Facebook video: “You have intentionally not listened to Italian or Libyan authorities. Good. Then take this load of human beings to the Netherlands.”
International maritime guidelines say that people rescued at sea should be taken to the nearest “place of safety.”
The United Nations and other humanitarian agencies do not deem Libya “a place of safety” because they say migrants there are subject to indefinite detention, physical abuse, forced labor and extortion.
A Lifeline statement indicated its vessel was heading northwards with the 226 migrants and called on “the competent authorities to swiftly react according to their obligation to designate a place of safety.”
“They have a Dutch flag, but they are not registered in the Netherlands, and therefore are not under Dutch state flag responsibility,” Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Lennart Wegewijs said in response, without elaborating.
Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli said he had asked the coast guard to investigate state flag issue.
Lifeline spokesman Axel Steier said the migrants aboard its boat included 14 women and four small children. “We didn’t want to wait for the Libyan coast guard because people were in danger,” Steier told Reuters.
Waiting for the Libyans would have constituted allowing “an illegal pushback” of refugees to a country where they are not safe, he added.
With its hard line on rescue boats, Italy’s new populist government has thrust migration back onto the European Union agenda. Italy has seen more than 640,000 land on its shores since 2014 and is currently sheltering 170,000 asylum seekers.
Germany is also seeking to restrict asylum-seekers’ movement in the bloc. An emergency “mini-summit” has been called for Brussels on Sunday to discuss immigration ahead of a full, 28-state EU summit on June 28-29.
Toninelli, who oversees Italy’s ports and coast guard, had called last weekend on the Netherlands to recall Lifeline and another Dutch-flagged ship, Seefuchs. On Thursday, Toninelli said Lifeline was acting “outside of international law.”
“The transport minister is lying,” Steier shot back. “We always act in line with international law. Always.”
Salvini has denounced the charity ships as “deputy traffickers,” suggesting they profit from the rescues.
Earlier this week a tribunal in Palermo shelved an inquiry into whether German charity Sea Watch and Spain’s Proactiva Open Arms were in contact with smugglers, saying no evidence was found.