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Matt Shuham

Matt Shuham is a news writer for TPM. He was previously assistant editor of The National Memo and managing editor of the Harvard Political Review. He is available by email at mshuham@talkingpointsmemo.com and on Twitter @mattshuham.

Articles by Matt

The Washington Post on Tuesday reported on the ongoing turmoil within the White House over a senior staffer’s ouster following accusations of domestic violence.

White House chief of staff John Kelly, whose handling of the scandal has come under intense scrutiny, is a “big fat liar,” one unnamed White House official told the Post, which cited “a dozen top White House officials and outside advisers and confidants,” mostly anonymously, for the report.

“To put it in terms the general would understand, his handling of the Porter scandal amounts to dereliction of duty,” the source added.

Various reports have asserted that the White House knew about the multiple allegations of domestic violence made against former White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter before the allegations became public in media reports last week. And FBI Director Christopher Wray testified Tuesday that the bureau’s background investigation had concluded before Porter’s resignation, despite the White House’s recent excuse that the check was ongoing.

One unnamed White House aide told the Post that Wray’s testimony was “a killer” and, asked if Kelly could have been more truthful about the scandal, said: “In this White House, it’s simply not in our DNA. Truthful and transparent is great, but we don’t even have a coherent strategy to obfuscate.”

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Tuesday pinned responsibility on a middleman: The White House Personnel Security Office, “staffed by career officials,” she said, had not completed their own process at the time of Porter’s resignation.

President Donald Trump, the Post said, has expressed frustration in private with the fallout from the scandal, and he has mused in recent days about a replacement for Kelly, two unnamed people with knowledge of the conversation told the Post. The paper noted, though, that Trump often muses about personnel changes he ultimately does not make.

Unnamed aides told the Post that Kelly’s response to the breaking Porter story included instructing staff to communicate what many believed to be a false version of events last Friday.

White House counsel Don McGahn and deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin also face scrutiny over the scandal, the Post said.

Unnamed officials told the Post that, rather than being forthcoming about their mistakes in vetting Porter, Kelly and McGahn sought to avoid blame. Kelly told at least one unnamed confidant, the Post said, that the White House communications office ought to take some responsibility for the fallout. He said separately that the media overplayed the story, the Post reported.

At a press briefing Tuesday, a reporter asked Sanders if she was “telling us that no senior staff — not Don McGahn, not Joe Hagin, not John Kelly — nobody in the senior staff in the West Wing was involved in that decision to tell [the FBI] to go back and see if they could get more information” on Porter, after the bureau completed its initial background check.

“Again, not that I’m aware of,” Sanders replied. “I can’t say with 100 percent certainty, but not that I’m aware of, of any conversations between those individuals.”

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EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt said Tuesday that the first class and military flights he takes at taxpayer expense come as a result of the “level of threat” he faces on planes.

“Unfortunately, … we’ve had some incidents on travel dating back to when I first started serving in the March-April timeframe,” he told the New Hampshire Union Leader in an interview Tuesday, during a visit to the state.

“We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment,” he continued, adding: “We’ve reached the point where there’s not much civility in the marketplace and it’s created, you know, it’s created some issues and the (security) detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat.”

The paper said Pruitt confirmed he’d flown first class from Washington, D.C. to Boston for the trip. CBS News’ Julianna Goldman ‏reported later Tuesday that the outlet had learned Pruitt took an expensive Emirates business class flight — the ticket was at least $7,000, Goldman said — from Milan to Washington last June, part of $43,000 spent on travel for the trip.

That dispatch adds to one from the Washington Post, which reported Sunday that Pruitt had taken at least $90,000 worth of flights in part of June of last year, including $1,641.43 for a single first class seat to New York, from Washington D.C.

Pruitt told the Union Leader he wasn’t “involved in any of those decisions,” and that “[t]hose are all made by the (security) detail, the security assessment in addition to the chief of staff.”

The Post and CBS News had already reported on Pruitt’s expensive travel habits in September of last year.

And he’s not alone among senior Trump administration officials: Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price have received similar scrutiny for luxury, taxpayer-funded travel. Price lost his job as a result, the rest remain in their positions.

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White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders denied on Tuesday that the Trump administration’s account of the background check for a former staffer accused of domestic violence differed from the FBI’s account.

The White House has claimed — in the face of reports that it knew about the domestic violence allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter long before his ouster — that Rob Porter’s background check was ongoing at the time of his resignation.

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday told the Senate Intelligence Committee something different: that the FBI had concluded its background investigation before Porter’s resignation.

At a press briefing Tuesday, reading from prepared remarks that she said were based on information from White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and White House Counsel Don McGahn, Sanders blamed a middleman: the White House Personnel Security Office.

“The White House Personnel Security Office, staffed by career officials, received information last year on what they considered to be the final background investigation report in November,” Sanders said. “But they had not made a final recommendation for adjudication to the White House because the process was still ongoing when Rob Porter resigned.”

“In the view of Personnel Security Office, the FBI’s July report required significant additional investigatory field work before Personnel Security Office could begin to evaluate the information for adjudication,” she continued. “As Director Wray said, information was still coming to the White House Personnel Security Office in February.”

Wray said Tuesday that “the FBI submitted a partial report on the investigation in question in March, and then a completed background investigation in late July,” and “soon thereafter we received requests for follow-up inquiry and we did the follow-up and provided that information in November.” He added: “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.”

A reporter asked Sanders about the White House’s previous claim that it had not received any paperwork marking the end of Porter’s background check — a claim that Wray appeared to contradict.

“That would come through the White House Personnel Security Office, which had not completed their investigation and not passed that information to the White House,” Sanders said, adding: “I think you need to be very clear that there’s multiple groups here. The White House Personnel Security Office, which is staffed by career officials, would have — may have received information, but they had not completed their process and made a recommendation to the White House for adjudication.”

Asked if the White House was “still maintaining that John Kelly really had no idea about these allegations of domestic abuse until this story broke,” Sanders said only that she was providing “the best information I have and that’s my understanding.”

“Did anyone in the White House Personnel Security Office have any communication with anyone in the West Wing about Rob Porter’s clearance between when the FBI started submitting its interim reports?” another reporter asked.

“I’m not aware of any communication,” Sanders said. “I can’t say definitively. But I’m not aware of any communication.”

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Fox News host Sean Hannity on Tuesday removed an article from his radio show’s website that claimed the official portrait of former President Barack Obama contained secret images of sperm.

“Controversy surrounding Kehinde Wiley’s wildly non-traditional portrait of the Commander-in-Chief broke out within minutes of its unveiling,” the article, written by “Hannity staff,” asserted, “with industry insiders claiming the artist secretly inserted his trademark technique -concealing images of sperm within his paintings.”

An archived version of the post can be read here.

The article included an excerpt from a 2008 New York Times profile, which claimed of Wiley: “His portraits initially depicted African-American men against rich textile or wallpaper backgrounds whose patterns he has likened to abstractions of sperm.”

Hours after the article’s deletion, Hannity said in a statement provided to TPM by a Fox News representative: “Earlier today my web staff posted content that was not reviewed by me before publication. It does not reflect my voice and message and, therefore, I had it taken down.”

Hannity’s post also included a close-up crop of the portrait, presumably showing the suspected sperm.

Dan Lavoie, a staffer for New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, flagged that the baseless conspiracy had earlier appeared on the message board website 4Chan — by now a well-known hub for alt-right and white nationalist chatter.

Hannity also reportedly deleted a tweet promoting the post:

This post has been updated.

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White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders is scheduled to deliver an on camera press briefing at 2:30 p.m. ET Tuesday. Watch live below:

This post has been updated.

FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday appeared to contradict the Trump administration’s claims about the background investigation into a former White House staffer who left the administration last week amid allegations of domestic violence.

Various outlets have reported that the FBI alerted the White House to the allegations of domestic violence made against former staff secretary Rob Porter by two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend before those allegations were made public last week. The administration has said in its defense that Porter’s background check was incomplete at the time of his ouster, and that they wanted to allow the FBI to finish its investigation before passing judgement on Porter.

But Wray’s account of the FBI’s communications with the Trump administration, told to the Senate Intelligence Committee Tuesday, seemed to differ from the White House’s.

“What I can tell you is that the FBI submitted a partial report on the investigation in question in March, and then a completed background investigation in late July,” he said, noting that the FBI “followed the established protocol” with Porter.

“Soon thereafter we received requests for follow-up inquiry and we did the follow-up and provided that information in November. And then we administratively closed the file in January,” he continued. “And then earlier this month we received some additional information and we passed that on as well.”

White House spokesperson Raj Shah told “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday, describing the White House’s position, that Porter’s background check “had not been completed yet. It was still in the investigative process and had yet to be adjudicated. So prior to an adjudication, the White House is not going to step into the middle of a process and short circuit it.”

This post has been updated.

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The hosts of “Fox & Friends” on Tuesday pressed a White House spokesperson over the Trump administration’s failure to vet two former staffers who left amid allegations of domestic abuse.

White House staff secretary Rob Porter kept his job until allegations of his domestic violence were published in the press, despite the White House reportedly being notified by the FBI of the allegations made by Porter’s two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend. Another White House staffer, David Sorenson, who worked under senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, resigned Friday amid allegations of domestic violence.

Interviewing White House spokesperson Raj Shah Tuesday, “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade asked: “What is going on behind the scenes in terms of FBI background checks that might change the staff this week?”

Shah dodged: “Well again, the FBI background check process is one that, again, the FBI runs, and we are a part of it,” he said. “It is operated throughout the federal government. It goes across agencies, and it’s been used from previous administrations, and will be used in future administrations. If any changes need to be made, we’ll look at that, but, you know, this is a process that we trust.”

“Raj, did you change anything?” Kilmeade interjected. “You relied upon it and you got burned because you had a two-time accused domestic abuser there at very sensitive position where perhaps he shouldn’t have been had that been fully exposed. So what changes now?”

It was a notably pointed line of questioning from the President’s favorite morning show, whose hosts normally step delicately into criticism of the White House. On Monday, they pressed another White House spokesperson, Hogan Gidley, on the same topic.

“I appreciate that point,” Shah replied Tuesday, without addressing it. “But we also need to look at the process and how it’s worked on historically. If changes need to be made, we’ll look at that and review the processes. But right now we do trust the process. It has been used time and again for decades to protect our national security, and we trust the FBI in these processes.”

“Raj, there’s a story out that somebody at FBI told somebody at the White House back in November that this guy was a problem,” co-host Steve Doocy asked. “Do you know who that person might be?”

“That is not accurate,” Shah replied. “The FBI would not give a background check investigation directly to senior White House officials.”

“It goes to a security office where then it is relayed, maybe up the chain, maybe not. But what we know about Rob Porter specifically, and that’s the incident that everybody is talking about, is that his background check investigation had not been completed yet. It was still in the investigative process and had yet to be adjudicated. So prior to an adjudication, the White House is not going to step into the middle of a process and short circuit it. These investigations are complex. They’re lengthy for a reason. We need to get it right.”

The remarks echoed President Donald Trump’s on Twitter, made in response to the resignations from his staff, that “Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.” Neither Trump, nor Shah, mentioned the victims of domestic violence in their defense of the White House.

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The President on Thursday again called for an end of the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, citing a years-old criminal case the Justice Department announced Wednesday it would use in an attempt to revoke one American’s citizenship.

The press release to which Trump linked concerns the case of Mubarak Ahmed Hamed. In 2010, according to the release, Hamed “pleaded guilty to conspiring to illegally transfer more than $1 million to Iraq in violation of federal sanctions, and to obstructing administration of the laws governing tax-exempt charities” during his time as executive director of the Islamic American Relief Agency. 

The Department of Justice is now seeking to revoke Hamed’s citizenship in federal court, a process called denaturalization. The process made headlines last year when the Supreme Court ruled that lying to citizenship officials could result in a loss of citizenship — as the DOJ claims Hamed did — but only if the government can prove that the lie affected its decision to grant citizenship in the first place.

The Daily Caller noted Wednesday that Attorney General Jeff Sessions has sought to bring attention to high-profile denaturalization cases, which have historically been fairly rare.

Trump has identified the elimination of the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program — which offers visas at random to a pool of migrants from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States — as one of his priorities in immigration reform, along with resolving the status of DACA recipients, providing funds for border security including his promised wall, and ending family reunification — or “chain migration” as Republicans have begun calling it. 

The DOJ’s press release cites a recent report — widely panned as misleading — that it said found “that nearly three out of every four individuals convicted of international terrorism-related charges in U.S. federal courts between Sept. 11, 2001 and Dec. 31, 2016 were foreign-born.”

This muddies the waters: “international terrorism-related charges” can include crimes committed overseas by foreign nationals. And the “related” crimes include those far beyond terrorism itself. It also, obviously, does not count domestic terrorism: Doing so would significantly alter the balance of foreign- to domestic-born defendants.

One Justice Department official, during a presentation of the report to the White House briefing room last month, couldn’t say how many of the report’s 549 cases were immigrants — damaging the government’s argument that the data should affect the immigration debate.

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Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach sits on the advisory board of a non-profit veterans’ group that spends the vast majority of donations it receives on fundraising and received a failing grade from the Better Business Bureau, the Kansas City Star reported Thursday.

The Better Business Bureau of St. Louis said Wednesday, in a report flagged by the paper, that the group, Veterans in Defense of Liberty, handed the vast majority of donations it collected right back over to professional fundraisers.

Fundraisers kept more than 94 percent of money raised for Veterans in Defense of Liberty in 2014 and 2015,” the group’s report said. “Veterans in Defense of Liberty, a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, received $49,028 of $1.07 million raised in 2014 and 2015 according to the group’s IRS 990 reports.”

Kobach, who is running to be governor of Kansas, was the vice chair of the White House’s now-defunct voter fraud commission. He has a long history of pushing for restrictive voting laws, often those that disproportionately affect low income people and people of color.

Kobach noted to the Kansas City Star that his board position is unpaid. He told the paper: “This is the first I’ve heard of any suggestion that the monies raised by the charity aren’t going to the various causes for veterans.”

He said he joined the group because he cares “deeply about veterans and veterans’ issues” and said “I’m going to ask the executive director to give me a full accounting of the organization’s resources. … I want to see the numbers myself before I make any decision.”

He told the paper that he believed donations to the group went “to a variety of causes for veterans … and also to support political causes and issues important to veterans as well.”

The Better Business Bureau quoted the group’s executive director, Dr. William Scott Magill, as saying, referring to the extreme overhead expenses: “I’m afraid that is the cost of doing business.”

“We’re not an organization that buys wheelchairs or prosthetics,” he told BBB. “We are pushing Congress to get every vet a ‘Freedom Card,’ so that they can go wherever they want to (for medical treatment).”

The group’s website includes a list of commitments: “Maintaining the integrity of our Republic,” “Promoting  conservatism,” and “identify[ing] and oppos[ing] those individuals, groups and agendas that would, knowingly or otherwise, bring about the loss of our freedoms and the destruction of our Republic through, [sic] the violation of the Constitution and the erosion of the traditional founding values and morals.”

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The White House on Thursday did not deny reports that top Trump administration officials knew that ousted White House staff secretary Rob Porter had been accused by multiple women of domestic abuse.

Rather, White House spokesperson Raj Shah said that White House chief of staff John Kelly “became fully aware” of the allegations on Wednesday. He refused to get further into specifics.

“He had not seen images prior to the statement on Tuesday night,” Shah said.

A reporter pressed: What did “fully aware” mean? What did Kelly know about the allegations before a Tuesday night report in the Daily Mail broke the story publicly?

“Again, I’m not going to get into the specifics of what may have emerged from the investigation,” Shah said, not denying reports that Kelly — who vouched for Porter even after the first reports surfaced publicly — knew about the allegations of abuse well before this week.

Separately, a reporter asked how White House officials had stood behind Porter even after Porter had said in a statement that he had personally taken the photos of his ex-wife showing apparent signs of domestic abuse — namely, a black eye.

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,” Shah said. “But, you know, this was the Rob Porter that I and many others have dealt with. That Sarah dealt with, that other officials including the chief of staff have dealt with, and the emerging reports were not reflective of the individual we had come to know.”

Shah said Porter’s background investigation was “ongoing” at the time of his resignation, and that he was working on an interim security clearance during his time at the White House. Wednesday was Porter’s last day, Shah said.

“Over the course of any investigation, some information may arise that seems troubling or complicated and requires additional investigating,” Shah said at the top of the briefing, reading a description of the background check process from a prepared remark. “It’s important to allow that process to continue in order for a fulsome understanding of the information.”

He added later: “It’s important to remember that Rob Porter has repeatedly denied these allegations and done so publicly. That doesn’t change how serious and disturbing these allegations are. They’re upsetting. And the background check investigates both the allegations and the denials.”

This post has been updated.

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