On Wednesday, we learned that during a 2017 background check for the former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, his two ex-wives both told the FBI that he had abused them. His first wife, Colbie Holderness, gave the FBI a photo of her with a black eye, a result, she said, of Porter punching her in the face during a vacation in 2005. Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, shared a 2010 emergency protective order she’d received after he punched in the glass on her door while they were separated.
The White House chief of staff John Kelly reportedly knew about these allegations, which are said to be the reason the FBI never gave Porter a full security clearance, ordinarily a prerequisite for his job. Nevertheless, Porter’s past was apparently not considered a problem inside the White House until it became public. This tells us quite a bit about how seriously this administration takes violence against women.
Even after The Daily Mail broke the story, Kelly reportedly urged Porter not to resign, though he did anyway. In the White House briefing room Wednesday, President Donald Trump’s press secretary Sarah Sanders read a statement from Porter calling his ex-wives’ accounts “simply false” and part of a “coordinated smear campaign.” In what was perhaps a rare outbreak of candor by omission, she didn’t bother with a pro forma statement that the White House condemns domestic violence.
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Even if you put aside questions of morality – which most people working for Donald Trump have already done – a staff secretary who can’t qualify for a security clearance because of his personal life is a serious security risk. Among other things, such a person could be subject to blackmail.
The staff secretary reads everything that goes to the president’s desk; it’s one of the most sensitive jobs in government. Rajesh De served as Barack Obama’s staff secretary from 2010 to 2012, after which he joined the National Security Agency as general counsel. “I was exposed to a far wider array of classified and sensitive information in the White House job than as the top lawyer at the National Security Agency,” he told me.
It’s hard to see why Kelly, who was supposed to be the disciplined adult in this administration, would cover for Porter. Unless, that is, he genuinely couldn’t grasp that domestic violence is a big deal.
To be fair to Kelly, this administration has made it clear that it’s not. Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, was charged with misdemeanor domestic violence, battery and dissuading a witness after a 1996 altercation with his second wife; the case was dismissed when she didn’t show up to testify against him. According to reporting by Politico’s Eliana Johnson, the abuse charges were the origin of Trump’s derisive nickname for Bannon: “Bam Bam.”
Then there’s Andy Puzder, the former head of Carl’s Jr. and Trump’s first nominee for labor secretary. He withdrew after a tape emerged of his ex-wife, in disguise and using a pseudonym, speaking about being abused on a 1990 episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” titled “High Class Battered Women.” (She later retracted the claims.) Last month Politico reported that the administration may find a new role for Puzder that doesn’t require Senate confirmation.
Trump himself was accused of domestic assault by his first wife, Ivana Trump, in their 1990 divorce deposition, obtained by one of Donald Trump’s biographers, Harry Hurt III. In “Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump,” Hurt wrote that Donald Trump became enraged after scalp reduction surgery left him in pain, and blamed his then-wife, who had recommended the doctor. Hurt describes Trump pinning back Ivana’s arms and ripping out her hair by the handful “as if he is trying to make her feel the same kind of pain that he is feeling.” Then, she told friends, Trump raped her. (Ivana Trump later issued a statement saying she hadn’t meant rape in a “literal or criminal sense.”)
It’s fair to think that Trump sets the bar for what’s considered acceptable in this White House. Porter’s father, Roger Porter, a Harvard professor who worked for presidents including Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan, once wrote of how presidents create administrative cultures: “Scholars of management today write much about the ‘tone at the top.’ Like all presidents, Gerald Ford established a tone that permeated the executive branch.” Trump, evidently, established one as well.
Porter and both of his ex-wives are Mormons, and, speaking to The Intercept, Willoughby described confiding in a Mormon official about her husband’s fits of rage. She was told to think about how Porter’s career might suffer if she spoke out. Powerful people in Washington seem to have been similarly worried, first and foremost, about protecting the ambitious and pedigreed young man.
Porter once worked for Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and in The Daily Mail, the senator categorically dismissed the accusations and, whether he meant to or not, the women making them. “Shame on any publication that would print this – and shame on the politically motivated, morally bankrupt character assassins that would attempt to sully a man’s good name,” he said.
Later, after the black-eye photograph of Holderness was published, Hatch issued a statement saying that domestic violence is “abhorrent.” But after that, he gave an interview in which he said he hoped Porter would “keep a stiff upper lip” and not resign. “If I could find more people like him, I would hire them,” said Hatch, describing Porter as “basically a good person.”
It’s not really a surprise that Hatch, who once said that Trump’s presidency could become the greatest ever, would treat serious allegations of abusing women as a personal foible unrelated to one’s professional capabilities. You basically have to see things that way to support Trump in the first place. The reasons that Porter didn’t belong in any White House are the reasons he fit in in this one.