Nine days into the Rob Porter scandal, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is pushing for senior officials who made the decisions surrounding his security clearance to take over the task of explaining—and defending—those decisions to the public.
Since Tuesday, when FBI director Chris Wray in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee contradicted her account of how Porter’s background check was handled, Sanders has moved to have White House counsel Don McGahn or chief of staff John Kelly to brief the press directly, according to a person close to the White House.
The issue remained unresolved at the time Wednesday’s briefing was canceled, according to the person, and may wind up being decided by President Donald Trump himself.
“I think the president is going to side with her,” this person said. “I think the president is going to want them to clear it up.”
Sanders did not respond a request for comment.
The press secretary, who stepped into her role last July after Sean Spicer’s departure, is one of the most seasoned Washington operatives remaining on Trump’s staff, and has been seen as a calm voice for an often chaotic administration. She’s well-liked by the president, but unlike many in his retinue, she has a clear sense of limits of her role—and a clear view of how a typical administration would handle the affair.
“This pot of water has boiled to the point where the only thing that could cool it down is a briefing of the principals to walk through what they knew and when they knew it,” said Ari Fleischer, who served as press secretary to President George W. Bush. “That’s why it makes good sense for the chief of staff and the counsel to stand shoulder to shoulder and explain the facts.”
Sanders’ frustration in recent days has been evident as she has been tasked with trying to make sense of sometimes conflicting storylines that have emerged from the White House surrounding the decision to allow Porter, whose second wife obtained a protective order against him during their divorce, to continue working in the White House with only an interim security clearance.
At Tuesday’s briefing, Sanders repeatedly made a point of highlighting the fact that she was not fully briefed on every element of the White House’s handling of the crisis, saying, “I can only give you the best information I have.”
After huddling behind closed doors with her colleagues for much of Wednesday morning, Sanders delayed the regular press briefing twice and then canceled it altogether late Wednesday afternoon, citing a school shooting in Florida as the reason. She kept the door to her office closed to reporters.
The White House was startled by House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy’s public statements early Wednesday criticizing the White House personnel process, according to a second person close to the White House. Gowdy (R-S.C.) announced that he is opening an investigation into Trump’s employment of Porter and what White House officials knew about domestic abuse accusations against him.
The second person close to the White House said that Sanders has been put in an extremely difficult situation, having been tasked with briefing the press on a topic that administration aides don’t feel was handled well. “She’s done a good job with a very difficult task,” this person said.
Porter had been dating White House communications director Hope Hicks, who was involved in crafting the initial response after the Daily Mail published an initial interview with one of Porter’s ex-wives detailing allegations of verbal and physical abuse, which Porter has denied. Kelly went on the record to defend Porter in that story, calling the aide a man of “true integrity.”
The next day, hours after the Daily Mail published photographs backing up claims of abuse by Porter’s two ex-wives on Feb. 7, Sanders arranged for Porter to meet with a select group of reporters for an off-the-record briefing to defend himself even as he confirmed his resignation. At that meeting, Porter blamed his first wife’s black eye on an accident during a fight, denying that he had punched her, according to a participant.
Deputy press secretary Raj Shah described Porter’s departure as a “termination” the next day, in his first turn at the White House briefing podium. On Monday, when she returned from a brief vacation, Sanders said responsibility for Porter’s clearance review lay with the FBI, before reversing herself and saying following Wray’s testimony that it was “career officials” in the White House who were overseeing the process.
On Wednesday, Vice President Mike Pence suggested at a public event that the scandal had been mishandled. “The White House could’ve handled this better,” Pence said.
Trump has not weighed in on the clearance issue, but said Wednesday that he objected to domestic abuse. “I am totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind. Everyone knows that,” Trump told reporters during a White House event. “It almost wouldn’t have to be said.”
Trump noted last Friday that Porter had claimed innocence and tweeted over the weekend about “lives being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.”
Discontent has been bubbling up for several days among White House aides, with various officials voicing incredulity at the White House’s handling of the controversy.
“I think there were a lot of us who messed up in the process,” said one senior administration official. The official argued that while the scandal may be getting overblown by the media, the White House has done itself no favors in its hedging and changing of stories.
Another White House official said morale in the West Wing is low and, after 13 months, staffers are fed up with living in crisis mode.
This official said his frustrations have driven him to consider leaving the White House.
The unhappiness extends to Republicans beyond the West Wing.
“‘A total disaster’ isn’t strong enough,” said one senior GOP Hill aide when asked about the White House handling of the controversy. “From a communications perspective, this is a case study in how to botch a response and prolong a bad story.”