And many, including the president himself, have turned their ire on Mr. Kelly for vouching for Mr. Porter’s character and falsely asserting that he had moved aggressively to oust him once his misdeeds were discovered.
For all the turmoil, Mr. Trump on Friday warmly praised Mr. Porter, saying it was a “tough time” for his former aide and noting that Mr. Porter had denied the accusations.
“We wish him well,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Porter, who was accused of physical and emotional abuse by two ex-wives. The president added, “He also, as you probably know, says he is innocent, and I think you have to remember that.”
“He worked very hard,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office when asked for a comment about Mr. Porter. The president said he had only “recently” learned of the allegations against his former aide and was surprised.
“He did a very good job when he was in the White House, and we hope he has a wonderful career, and he will have a great career ahead of him,” Mr. Trump said. “But it was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly he’s also very sad now.”
The glowing praise of a staff member accused of serial violence against women was in line with the president’s own denials of sexual impropriety despite accusations from more than a dozen women and his habit of accepting claims of innocence from men facing similar allegations. Among them was Roy S. Moore, the former Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, who is accused of molesting teenage girls.
Mr. Trump’s comments came as a new timeline emerged indicating that top officials knew much earlier than previously disclosed that Mr. Porter faced accusations of violence against women.
Shortly after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, Mr. McGahn, the White House counsel, first learned from Mr. Porter himself that there were abuse allegations against him, according to two people briefed on the situation. Mr. McGahn’s knowledge of the accusations in January was first reported by The Washington Post.
John Kelly: From Order to Disorder?
Mr. Porter told him about the allegations because he was concerned that what he characterized as false charges from aggrieved women who were out to destroy him could derail his F.B.I. background check, according to one of the two people briefed on the matter.
Six months later, the F.B.I. told Mr. McGahn that accusations had indeed surfaced in Mr. Porter’s background check. Mr. McGahn opted at that time to let the F.B.I. complete its investigation into any incidents. Mr. Porter assured Mr. McGahn, another person briefed on the matter said, that the accusations from the former wives were lies.
The emerging timeline illustrates the degree to which Mr. Porter, a clean-cut and ambitious former Rhodes scholar and Harvard-educated lawyer, concealed troublesome episodes from his past that would normally be considered disqualifying for a senior White House aide.
Those efforts appear to have succeeded for months, at least in part because of the willingness of a virtually all-male staff in the top echelons of the West Wing to believe a talented male colleague over women they had never met.
Lawyers in the counsel’s office believed that the bureau — with its vast investigative powers — was best positioned to look into the accusations, the two people briefed on the matter said, and believed it was not their job to investigate conduct that took place long before an official began working in the administration.
That represents a sharp break with past practice, in which White House counsels undertook elaborate vetting of senior advisers before they were hired — and looked into any serious allegations that surfaced thereafter.
In November, the White House heard back from the F.B.I. Senior White House officials, including John F. Kelly, the chief of staff, Joe Hagin, the deputy chief of staff, and Mr. McGahn received word from the bureau that the allegations were credible and that Mr. Porter was not likely to pass his background check.
But while Mr. McGahn privately informed Mr. Porter and encouraged him to consider moving on, according to one of the two people briefed, no action was taken to immediately terminate him. Rather, Mr. McGahn requested that the F.B.I. complete its investigation and come back to the White House with a final recommendation, a process that could take months.
Several White House aides described confusion among the staff about why Mr. Kelly and others had initially rallied so strongly to defend Mr. Porter, and some suggested that Mr. Kelly had tried to cover up what he knew.
Others insisted that while he was aware of the broad strokes of accusations against Mr. Porter, and while he could have made more of an effort to learn about them, he trusted the staff secretary’s denials and was describing an accurate timeline about what he knew.
On Thursday night, a person close to Mr. Kelly said that the chief of staff had learned the details of what happened with Mr. Porter only “40 minutes before he threw him out” on Wednesday morning, as pictures of Mr. Porter’s bruised ex-wife began circulating.
But on Wednesday afternoon, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, and other aides maintained to reporters that Mr. Porter had not been pushed out, and that he was leaving of his own accord, issuing a statement saying that both the president and Mr. Kelly had “full confidence” in his performance.
On Friday morning at the White House, Mr. Kelly appeared to be trying to paint his handling of the matter in a more favorable light. At the end of the senior staff meeting, Mr. Kelly volunteered that he had something he wanted to “clarify,” according to people with knowledge of his remarks.
Mr. Kelly went on to say that he had learned of Mr. Porter’s true situation less than an hour before he removed him from his job. Two people familiar with the comments said that most of the staff appeared incredulous; one person said several people in the room knew that the timeline Mr. Kelly had presented was false.
As the meeting broke up, Ms. Hicks loudly complained about what had transpired, a person briefed on the meeting said.