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2nd White House Aide Resigns After Accusations of Domestic Abuse

The White House confirmed late Friday that a second staff member had resigned over allegations of domestic abuse.

Spokesman Raj Shah said David Sorenson, a speechwriter for the Council on Environmental Quality, resigned Friday. Two days earlier White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter stepped down amid accusations by both his former wives that he had abused them.

Sorensen denied the abuse allegations, which were first reported Friday by The Washington Post. Sorenson’s ex-wife had told the Post that he was violent and emotionally abusive during their short marriage.

Trump on Porter

President Donald Trump said Friday that he is very sad at Porter’s resignation.

“He says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Friday. “He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent, so you’ll have to talk to him about that.”

The president did not mention the former wives or their claims that Porter physically and psychologically abused them.

Security clearance concerns

The revelations about Porter have raised fresh questions about the attitude of senior White House staff toward allegations of improper behavior by employees. It has also cast a spotlight on the practice of allowing staff without security clearances to work in and around the Oval Office.

Porter had only an interim clearance while holding one of the most sensitive jobs in the White House, where he controlled the flow of information to the president. A full clearance had been held up while the FBI investigated abuse allegations by his two former wives.

Trump Friday wished his former aide well, noting that Porter had done “a very good job in the White House.”

Porter’s swift resignation followed publication in Britain’s Daily Mail of a picture of his first wife, Colbie Holderness, with a black eye allegedly suffered when Porter punched her in 2005 while the couple was on vacation in Italy.

Holderness and Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, were both quoted by the tabloid as saying Porter’s consistent abuse was the reason for their respective divorces.

​Kelly under scrutiny

The Porter matter has intensified scrutiny of White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a former army general brought in to bring order to an administration that had been seen as chaotic under previous chief, Reince Priebus.

Media reports say Kelly apparently had prior knowledge of Porter’s inappropriate behavior. Critics say Kelly should have been more concerned about employees working without security clearances.

Kelly has also come under fire for appearing to defend Porter when the allegation of abuse first surfaced. He issued a statement Wednesday calling Porter “a man of true integrity and honor.”

“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Kelly wrote. “He is a friend, a confidant and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”

Later, as the picture of Holderness with the black eye circulated on the Internet, Kelly amended his original statement, saying, “I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society.”

Porter resigns

A day after Kelly and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders spoke warmly of Porter, his departure was announced with a terse comment. 

“He was terminated yesterday and his last day was yesterday,” Shah, the deputy press secretary said Thursday. Shah characterized the departure as a resignation, however, rather than a firing.

Porter, a Rhodes scholar and Harvard-educated lawyer, played an important role in deciding which articles and policy proposals were given to the president for his review.

Porter had a hand in writing Trump’s recent State of the Union address, and news photos and videos often showed images of him with other members of the White House inner circle. Several news agencies have reported that he is currently romantically linked with another close Trump aide, White House Communications Director Hope Hicks.

Porter issued a statement Wednesday denying the accusations.

“These outrageous allegations are simply false,” he said. “I took the photos given to the media nearly 15 years ago and the reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described. I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign.”

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Congress Reaches Budget Compromise, But No Deal Yet on ‘Dreamers’

The U.S. Congress has approved spending bill and two year budget agreement which has been signed by President Donald Trump, ending a brief government shutdown. The deal ended weeks of uncertainty as well as Democratic hopes of linking passage of the budget with a solution for 1.8 million undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. VOA congressional correspondent Katherine Gypson reports on the immigration fight ahead on Capitol Hill.

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Trump Signs Budget Agreement, Ending US Government Shutdown

U.S. President Donald Trump has signed a sweeping bipartisan budget bill, ending a brief government shutdown and adding hundreds of billions of dollars in spending on domestic programs, disaster aid and the military.

Trump signed the measure without fanfare after it received final congressional approval in the early hours of Friday morning.

White House officials said the lack of a signing ceremony indicated Trump’s displeasure with the last-minute additions that will further add to the government’s ballooning deficit. In two subsequent morning tweets, he took aim at Democrats, who had demanded more domestic spending in return for the votes needed to win enough bipartisan support to pass the deal.

The House voted in the wee hours of the morning, 240-186, to approve the measure, which funds the government through March 23. Hours earlier, the Senate had voted 71-28 in favor.

The deal gives appropriations committees in both houses of Congress time to craft a detailed spending plan that will fund the government through September of 2019.

Several lawmakers on the left and right opposed the bill, including conservative Republicans who objected to the large spending increases. Progressive Democrats protested the omission of language that would end the threat of deportation for more than one million young undocumented immigrants, known as “Dreamers,” who were brought to the United States as children.

Trump ordered an end to the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program last year. Participants face deportation when the program expires March 5 unless Congress takes action.

Trump, in his third tweet of the day, applauded the exclusion of the Dreamers, or recipients of the DACA provision, from the spending bill. “Fortunately, DACA not included in this Bill, negotiations to start now!” he wrote.

Republican and Democratic legislative leaders praised the deal.

“This is a great victory for our men and women in uniform. Republicans and Democrats joined together to finally give our troops the resources and our generals the certainty to plan for the future,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who had opposed earlier versions of the bill that cut domestic and disaster relief spending, also claimed victory.

“What makes Democrats proudest of this bill is that after a decade of cuts to programs that help the middle class, we have a dramatic reversal,” Schumer said. “Funding for education, infrastructure, fighting drug abuse, and medical research will all, for the first time in years, get very significant increases, and we have placed Washington on a path to deliver more help to the middle class in the future.”

Dreamers’ plight

While Schumer and the Democrats yielded on the DACA issue, Republican leaders gave assurances that overhauling America’s immigration system remains high on their agenda.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised to start Senate floor debate on immigration reform, including a fix for DACA recipients, as soon as spending issues are resolved.

Speaker Ryan gave a similar assurance Thursday, saying, “To anyone who doubts my commitment to solve this problem and bring up a DACA and immigration reform bill, do not. We will bring a solution to the floor, one that the president will sign.”

A single Republican senator had held up passage of the budget bill Thursday, forcing the brief government shutdown, to underscore his fear that increasing spending by hundreds of billions of dollars would explode America’s already rising federal deficit and add to the nation’s more than $20 trillion national debt.

“The reason I’m here tonight is to put people on the spot,” Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said in a fiery floor speech that went on for hours. “I want people to feel uncomfortable. I want them to have to answer people at home who said, How come you were against President [Barack] Obama’s deficits and then how come you’re for Republican deficits?'”

Michael Bowman contributed to this report.

Watch related video by VOA’s Katherine Gypson:


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Pence in Pyeongchang for Olympics Opening Ceremonies

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrived in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Friday to attend the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Earlier Friday, Pence traveled to the South Korean Navy’s 2nd Fleet Command in Pyeongtaek, 70 kilometers south of Seoul, to visit a memorial for the South Korean warship Cheonan, which was sunk by an explosion blamed on the North. Nearly 50 sailors aboard the Cheonan were killed.

“Our objective here today is to stand with our allies. But is also to stand up for the truth. And to recognize that whatever images may emerge against the powerful backdrop and idealism of the Olympics, North Korea has to accept change,” Pence told reporters at the naval base before heading to the Olympic Games venue.

“They have to abandon their nuclear ambitions. They have to end the day of provocation and menacing. And frankly they have to end an appalling record of human rights that you heard first-hand today, the world community,” he added.

The vice president also met with North Korean defectors while in Pyeongtaek.

At the Olympics

U.S. officials have not ruled out the possibility that the vice president might meet a North Korean official at the Olympics. North Korean state media said Thursday there was no intention on the North Korean side for such talks to take place.

Pence said his team had not requested a meeting, but that if it did happen, he would continue his message that North Korea must entirely abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile efforts and will remain under pressure until it does so.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said South Korea sees hosting the Olympics as a way to improve diplomatic relations with North Korea. He has referred to the games as the “Olympic Games of peace.”

Ahead of the opening ceremony in Pyeongchang, Pence, Moon and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended a reception for about 200 dignitaries hosted by the South Korean president.

According to the vice president’s office, Pence stopped by many tables at the reception, “but did not come across the North Korea delegation.”

Vow to South Korea

On Thursday, Pence said in a meeting with Moon that Washington would “bring maximum pressure to bear on North Korea” until they abandon their nuclear weapons program.

Meeting with Moon at the Blue House in Seoul, Pence reaffirmed to longtime ally South Korea the U.S. commitment to economically and diplomatically isolate North Korea in order to achieve the goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

On Thursday, while in Japan, Pence stopped at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, where he gave a pointed speech against North Korea.

He said the United States will act with “vigilance and resolve” in the face of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile threats, and reiterated the Trump administration’s warning that while its seeks peace, “all options are on the table.”

About 54,000 personnel are stationed at the U.S. base. Pence toured the facility and met with Air Force Lt. Gen. Jerry Martinez, commander of U.S. Forces Japan. He also was briefed on the capabilities of the base if “diplomacy fails.”

Pence said North Korea has repeatedly responded to overtures from the world with broken promises and provocations. He highlighted his earlier announcement that the United States would continue to intensify what he called a “maximum pressure campaign” and keep it in place until North Korea abandons its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“We’re standing in a country that has literally seen ballistic missiles overfly their land twice in a single month. And they’ve seen multiple ballistic missiles land within their economic zone in the Sea of Japan,” Pence later told reporters.

“American forces, the Self-Defense Forces of Japan are ready for any eventuality. And we will continue to make it clear to all parties that the United States and our allies in this region stand ready at a moment’s notice to defend our people and defend our way of life,” he added.

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Republicans, Democrats Fight Over Infrastructure Plans

U.S. House of Representatives Democrats on Thursday proposed $1 trillion in new infrastructure spending over 10 years — five times the amount President Donald Trump is expected to offer in his upcoming plan to spur states and cities to seed new public works projects.

Trump will outline his long-awaited plan to use $200 billion to try to generate at least $1.5 trillion in infrastructure improvements over 10 years next Monday, a White House official confirmed earlier this week.

But Democrats want far more government spending, including $100 billion on schools alone as well as billions to expand rural broadband internet service, improve airports, mass transit, roads and ports, boost energy efficiency and improve aging water systems.

House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said Trump’s plan was a “disappointment” and spends too little federal money. The plan “shifts the burden onto cities and states,” she added.

A leaked document last month disclosed administration plans to reduce federal cost-sharing for projects to no more than 20 percent of the costs from the traditional 80 percent.

The Trump administration has previously rejected Democrats’ call to spend $1 trillion in new government spending as not fiscally responsible.

On Wednesday, Democratic and Republican congressional leaders unveiled a spending deal that includes an additional $20 billion over two years “to invest in infrastructure, including programs related to rural water and wastewater, clean and safe drinking water, rural broadband, energy, innovative capital projects, and surface transportation.”

Specific spending details will be left up to members of Congress when they write legislation later this year.

Trump will meet with state and local officials Monday to tout his plan, which includes $100 billion in incentives for state and local projects, $50 billion in grants for rural projects, $30 billion for government lending programs and $20 billion for transformative projects, sources briefed on the matter said.

Trump plans a separate meeting with congressional leaders later next week and is expected to travel to Florida for an infrastructure event next Friday, two officials said.

One big question is how improvements will be paid for.

Democrats did not propose a specific funding mechanism Thursday, and the Trump administration has said it plans to rely on spending cuts to pay for the plan. The White House has not ruled out potential new revenue streams, such as an increase in the gas tax.

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US Faith Leaders Urge Trump to Curb Efforts to Limit Refugees

More than 500 evangelical Christian leaders and pastors in the United States called Thursday for President Donald Trump to curb his effort to limit the number of refugees he is allowing into the country.

The church officials are part of World Relief, a global Christian humanitarian organization. They voiced concern about the sharp cutback in the number of refugees to the United States. They say the number declined from nearly 97,000 in 2016 to about 33,000 last year.

Trump has limited the number of refugees the U.S. has accepted as part of his effort to thwart potential terrorists from moving to the nation.

Faith leaders ‘troubled’

In a letter to Trump and members of Congress, the faith leaders said, “We are troubled by the dramatic reduction in arrivals of refugees to the United States,” saying the number this year could fall to the lowest since the refugee resettlement program was started in 1980. 

They said the reduction was occurring “at a time when there are more refugees in the world than ever before in recorded history. Our prayer is that the U.S. would continue to be a beacon of hope for those fleeing persecution.”

The church leaders, who have generally been supportive of Trump’s presidency, acknowledged that “we live in a dangerous world and affirm the crucial role of government in protecting us from harm and setting the terms on refugee admissions. However, compassion and security can coexist, as they have for decades. While we are eager to welcome persecuted Christians, we also welcome vulnerable Muslims and people of other faiths or no faith at all.”

They said Trump’s order to limit the number of refugees entering the U.S. is “robbing families of hope and a future.”

Call for protection of young refugees

The faith leaders also called for protection against the deportation of young immigrants brought illegally into the U.S. years ago by their parents.

Trump also has called for allowing 1.8 million of these immigrants to be allowed to stay in the U.S. after he ended a program started by former President Barack Obama to protect them from being returned to their native countries.

In exchange, Trump wants Congress to fund construction of a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico to thwart further illegal migration and an end to other programs that have allowed hundreds of thousands of other foreign nationals to move legally to the U.S.

Congress is expected to soon debate immigration policy changes, but it is unclear what might be adopted or what legislation Trump might be willing to accept. 

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Trump’s Poll Rating Improves After Months of Stagnation

President Donald Trump has been getting a bump up in the polls in recent days, likely thanks to growing public optimism about the U.S. economy.

The latest Quinnipiac University poll has President Donald Trump’s approval rating at 40 percent, his best showing in seven months in that survey. The Gallup weekly tracking poll also had Trump at 40 percent. The last time that happened was mid-September. The Real Clear Politics polling average now has Trump at slightly above 42 percent, a notable change after months of weak readings in the mid to high-30’s.

But political analysts have been quick to caution any presidential progress in the polls could be undone by continuing attacks aimed at opposition Democrats and the ongoing investigation into possible collusion between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016.

Blasting Democrats

Trump took his economic message to a factory in Ohio recently where he highlighted the impact of his tax cuts. But the president also took a swipe at Democrats who withheld their applause at his recent State of the Union Address.

“They were like, death, and un-American, un-American.Somebody said treasonous. I mean, yeah I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not?,” he said.

It was a sharp deviation in tone from Trump’s recent address to Congress where he raised the prospect of bipartisanship.

“I call upon all of us to set aside our differences, to seek out common ground and to summon the unity we need to deliver for the people,” a line that generated applause in the House chamber.

Trump’s slightly improving poll numbers suggest voters are beginning to give him some credit for the surging economy. But the attacks on Democrats could undermine his efforts to reach out and broaden his base of support beyond Trump loyalists.

“You know, if Trump is smart he will try to move to the center and make deals with Democrats,” said Jim Kessler of the center-left advocacy group Third Way. “But they have not shown an ability to go more than a week without some disaster occurring. So until they are able to string a couple of weeks together, I expect chaos.”

Russia probe

Trump and some of his Republican allies in Congress also continue to complain about the Russia probe.Dueling Republican and Democratic staff memos have sharpened the divide over whether there was any political motivation to initiate the investigation into Russian election meddling.But Democrats see that as a concerted effort to undermine the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

“They do not quit with all these conspiracy theories, with all these ridiculous fomentations,” said Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer this week. “They do not quit, perhaps because they are afraid of what a real investigation, which Mueller is doing and will continue to do, will reveal.”

The Mueller probe shows no signs of ending anytime soon and the longer it looms over the administration, the more it could become a factor in the November midterm congressional midterm elections.

“That does overhang his presidency,” said John Fortier with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.” We do not know the timing.We do not know the revelations that will come out and it could be a big bombshell one way or the other as we proceed this year.”

Looming midterms

Presidential approval ratings can have a big impact on midterm voting. The party that holds the White House traditionally loses congressional seats in midterms, and those losses are magnified when the president’s approval is under 50 percent. In Trump’s case, he has struggled throughout the first year of his presidency to stay near 40 percent, and that has a lot of Republicans worried about their chances to hold their majority in the House of Representatives. Democrats need to pick up 24 seats in the House to retake the majority.

Republicans hold a 51 to 49 seat edge in the Senate.But Democrats are defending 26 of the 34 seats at stake in the November election and ten of the seats they hold are states that voted for Trump in 2016.

Another good indicator for the midterms is the generic ballot question where voters are asked which party they would prefer to represent them in Congress. Democrats currently have an edge on that question over Republicans by about six points, according to the Real Clear Politics average of several surveys. But that is down from a double-digit Democratic advantage in December, suggesting the strong economy and the slight uptick in Trump’s approval rating might be helping Republicans.

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Trump to Address Staunch Supporters at Annual Prayer Breakfast

President Donald Trump will be among friends Thursday when he speaks to the 66th annual National Prayer Breakfast, an event dominated by his staunchest supporters, evangelical Christians.

He comes to the breakfast with several promises kept. 

“There are a lot of issues that the president has delivered on for evangelicals and for Christians,” said Jenna Browder, host of the Christian Broadcasting Network’s Faith Nation show. 

“We’re talking about moving the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. We’re talking about his stance on abortion and being pro-life. We’re talking about the appointment of Neil Gorsuch, and not just him at the Supreme Court but also the federal courts as well,” Browder said in a VOA interview.

This year, however, there’s a new item on the agenda of many evangelicals: helping undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children who now face deportation after Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that allows them to stay.

Trump has said he wants these immigrants — known informally as Dreamers, a name taken from a legislative effort to address their status, which did not pass — to remain in the only country many of them have ever known, but only if Congress approves measures to strengthen border enforcement and fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

At a Capitol Hill news conference Wednesday, evangelical leaders joined members of Congress from the president’s Republican Party in demanding a solution to the Dreamers’ dilemma before a March 5 deadline set by Trump.

“As Christians, Dreamers are not some abstract category for us,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

“Dreamers are teaching Sunday school in our churches. Dreamers are leading door-to-door evangelism efforts in our communities. Dreamers are the ones who are baptizing, the ones who are teaching people to read in our communities,” Moore added.

Conservative Republican Senator James Lankford of Oklahoma called this a “unique moment” to act on the immigration issue.

“Each individual is created in the image of God, each individual has value and worth, each individual has dignity, and for the very foundation of our country, even before we were a nation, the Declaration of Independence, we honored the rights of each individual,” Lankford said. “We want to continue to be able to practice that.”

Keeping promises to evangelicals

Trump’s reputation for keeping promises to evangelicals is good. Weeks after taking office last year, he told prayer breakfast attendees he would do away with a 63-year-old law known as the Johnson Amendment, which some Christian pastors said threatens their churches’ tax-exempt status if they endorse political candidates from the pulpit.

“Our republic was formed on the basis that freedom is not a gift from government, but freedom is a gift from God,” Trump said, quoting Thomas Jefferson. “That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that.”

While the law remains on the books, Trump signed an executive order last May intended to allow churches to be more politically outspoken.

“That’s something that hasn’t been done in a long time, and the president was proud to do it,” deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said.

Those who support the Johnson Amendment, however, say Trump’s executive order made it easier for religious groups to deny contraception and other forms of birth control to their employees in their health insurance coverage.

At a forum held before the 2016 presidential election, Diane Winston, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California and an authority on religion and the media, said evangelical voters differentiate between Trump’s morality and his politics.

“He supports some of their basic social and political positions. He may be immoral, but he has a moral agenda,” Winston said.

CBN’s Browder said Trump has shown evangelicals that while his behavior may not be what they would like, he represents their interests.

“If you have a candidate, a president, who is not perfect, like you, like me, but who is delivering on policy, then it makes a lot of sense that evangelicals would support him,” she said.

The annual multifaith breakfast is held each year on the first Thursday in February. Lawmakers and religious leaders from about 70 countries are expected at this year’s event, which brings bipartisan political leaders and their religious counterparts together to meet, pray and build relationships.

Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has headlined the event.

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US Congresswoman Sets Record With Marathon Speech 

U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi conducted a rare “filibuster” speaking for more than seven hours in Congress on Wednesday to try to force Republicans to bring up an immigration bill in the chamber.

The California Democrat, who turns 78 next month, started talking shortly after 10 a.m., saying that Democrats would oppose any funding bill unless House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, agreed to bring a bipartisan immigration bill to the House floor for a vote.

A filibuster is a prolonged speech that obstructs progress in a legislative assembly while not technically contravening the required procedures. This case is not a classic filibuster since it is not obstructing the passage of specific legislation.

“There’s nothing partisan or political about protecting Dreamers,” Pelosi said, using the term commonly applied to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children. “If a Dream Act were brought to the floor, it would pass immediately, with strong bipartisan support.” She cited polling that showed 84 percent of Americans support a path to citizenship for the Dreamers. 

“I commend my Republican colleagues for their courage in speaking out on this, yet our Dreamers hang in limbo with a cruel cloud of fear and uncertainty above them. The Republican moral cowardice must end,” she continued, referring to Republican leadership’s reluctance to bring a bill to the floor.

Eight hours and seven minutes later, at 6:11 p.m., Pelosi stopped, having spent an entire workday standing at her desk in 10-centimeter heels and consuming nothing but water, an aide said.

The House historian’s office said in a statement that Pelosi’s speech was the longest continuous one in the chamber that it was “able to find on short notice.”

What was thought to be the previous House record belonged to Missouri Democratic Representative Champ Clark, who in 1909 spoke for five hours and 15 minutes, the statement said, but he was repeatedly interrupted, unlike Pelosi.

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White House Senior Aide to Resign Following Abuse Charges

U.S. White House staff secretary Rob Porter said Wednesday he would resign following accusations of domestic abuse from two former wives.

He did not say when his resignation would be effective.

Porter, a senior adviser who is in charge of much of the documentation that goes to President Donald Trump for his signature, announced his resignation in a statement after his former wives made accusations against him in published reports.

DailyMail.com quoted Colbie Holderness as saying that Porter choked and punched her during their marriage. Intercept.com quoted former wife Jennifer Willoughby as saying that Porter was abusive. Reuters has not independently confirmed the claims.

“These outrageous allegations are simply false,” Porter said in a statement released by the White House. “I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign.”

Porter said he would “seek to ensure a smooth transition when I leave the White House.”

The accusations against Porter were a surprise to many at the White House, who have seen the lanky aide as a mild-mannered, easy-going adviser.

Porter had not yet been approved for a security clearance.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said issues related to an individual’s suitability are reviewed through a thorough and lengthy background check process.

“Background checks involve a complex investigation run by intelligence and law enforcement agencies. As has always been our policy, we do not comment on security clearances. Rob Porter has been effective in his role as Staff Secretary. The President and Chief of Staff [John Kelly] have full confidence in his abilities and his performance,” she said.

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