I begin writing this after watching Anderson Cooper’s interview on CNN with former White House staffer Rob Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby on 9 February (NZ time). Anyone who saw it who has been in an abusive relationship of any kind will recognize the feelings she expressed. For that reason, I place a great deal of credibility in what she said.
White House presidential aide Porter is an abuser, and this public outing of him at least warns women about him in the future. It may even prompt him to get help so he can deal with his issues and no one else will suffer at his hands in the future. As disturbing as her story is though, I find the White House handling of the situation much worse. They demonstrate an attitude to women that simply should not exist.
Chief of Staff John Kelly, to whom Porter directly reported, is exposed by this incident to have a very old-fashioned attitude to the treatment of women. Yesterday President Trump also made statements completely inappropriate to the situation. There also seems to be an ongoing attempt by the White House to minimize the error of Kelly and Porter. But I can’t help thinking that too many White House staff just don’t see what’s so wrong with what they did.
This is my understanding of the timeline:
1. Rob Porter began to work for the Trump administration right from the start: 20 January 2017. A full security clearance for his job was a requirement. This is a White House process. The FBI carries out background checks, but hands the results back to the White House. The White House has the final decision, but can’t give someone a full security clearance without them passing an FBI background check. However, the president can give a staffer a temporary security clearance against the recommendation of the FBI, which is what he did in the case of Porter.
2. At the time Porter initially failed his background check, Reince Preibus was White House Chief of Staff. He did not leave until 31 July 2017 and so surely knew of Porter’s inability to obtain a full security clearance, and why.
3. John Kelly became Chief of Staff the same day Preibus left. All reports are that he didn’t find out from the FBI why Porter only had a temporary security clearance until November 2017. Personally, I find that unlikely. Either way, Kelly promotes Porter to the role he held until his resignation despite knowing he can’t pass a background check.
4. The reasons we know of for why the security clearance was denied are allegations of abuse by both his ex-wives (Colbie Holderness, m. 2003–2008; Jennifer Willoughby, m. 2009–2013). There is a police report that supports one of the allegations made by Willoughby. Further, Holderness gave a copy of the photo of herself with a black eye that’s been in the media this week to the FBI. Therefore it was available to the White House if anybody had looked further into the reasons for Porter’s failure to pass his background check. It seems that Kelly did not see that photo until it was in the Daily Mail (see below).
5. In addition, an ex-girlfriend of Porter contacted the White House alleging that Porter was abusive towards her. She was in a relationship with Porter following his second marriage. Journalists don’t appear to know at the time I write this whether the FBI is aware of this allegation, but we do know that Kelly is.
6. John Kelly made a decision to recommend to the president that he continue to renew Porter’s temporary security clearance. We do not know why he did not consider fourteen years’ worth of abuse allegations from three different women bad enough to result in Porter’s termination. In her interview with Anderson Cooper, Willoughby said Porter’s charm is such that she thought he could convince others that it was not a problem. So perhaps he fobbed Kelly off with comments like, “It’s just a misunderstanding,” for a while. All indications are also that Porter was extremely good at his job, so Kelly was probably inclined to believe him. Porter is also handsome. Psychologists tell us that people are far more likely to trust and believe those who are good looking. (Remember those who literally thought the Boston bomber was innocent because he was handsome?)
7. It is not clear what Kelly told the president at that point. Journalists are trying to find that out. Trump clearly did not ask Kelly to follow up on the issue.
8. At this point, Porter’s first wife Colbie Holderness speaks to the Daily Mail about the abuse she suffered during her marriage to Porter after they reveal that Porter and another White House staffer, Hope Hicks, are in a relationship. They also speak to Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, and discover that she, too, suffered spousal abuse. Willoughby’s account is all the more credible because some time ago she wrote about it in her blog, though without mentioning names.
9. The Daily Mail announces via Twitter that the story is coming out the next day. There are no photos as part of the announcement.
10. In advance of the Daily Mail story, the White House releases a statement in support of Porter which includes the personal endorsements of several members of the administration. The statement is written by Hope Hicks who, remember, is in a relationship with Porter. She did not get the president’s approval before releasing it. Vanity Fair‘s Gabriel Sherman later reports that Trump is “pissed” with Hicks because of this. Sherman writes:
Trump was also not aware of the severity of the alleged abuse until yesterday, when Ivanka walked into the Oval Office and showed her father a photo published in the Daily Mail of Porter’s ex-wife with a black eye. “He was fucking pissed,” said one Republican briefed on the conversation.
11. Some of those who gave statements to Hicks in support of Porter were not made aware that they were defending an alleged spousal abuser. John Kelly, of course, did know. His endorsement reads:
Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.
I shouldn’t need to point this out, but I will. Step by step so even people like Kelly, Trump and Hicks can understand it.
(a) Porter has unrestrained access to the president.
(b) Porter has the job of presenting all documents, including those that are highly classified, top secret, etc, to the president.
(c) Porter abuses women and denies it. He doesn’t want people to know. Willoughby said in her CNN interview that he tried to get her to lie about his abuse of her. Therefore, he is a potential target for blackmail.
(d) A blackmailer could make Porter ensure Trump does not see certain documents, make sure Trump does see certain documents, or even attack him physically.
Further, the White House should present an example to both the country and the rest of the world. Having a known abuser of women on staff is not appropriate.
12. The Daily Mail story is released. It includes photos of Holderness with a black eye she says Porter gave her.
13. Porter does not deny that he punched Holderness in the face. He says, “These outrageous allegations are simply false. 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.” Holderness says she forced Porter to take the photo as part of an act of contrition. Porter does not deny this.
14. It is only when he sees the photo that Kelly comes to consider the matter of Porter’s spousal abuse serious. His statement re the issue changes after the photo is published. Now he says, “He found out that the domestic abuse accusations against top aide Rob Porter were true.” (MSNBC) However, there is no clear time line. Kelly’s story keeps changing about what he knew when. He seems torn between a desire to tell the truth and to cover his back. Full coverage of the changes in his story can be read here.
We don’t know for sure what the changes indicate. There are many reasons that could be the case including:
(a) Kelly thinks spousal abuse is only serious if it involves physical violence, and he was unaware there was physical violence until he saw the photo. That raises more issues:
(i) He doesn’t understand about non-physical abuse in relationships;
(ii) He obviously didn’t follow-up with the FBI. If he had, they would have shown him the photos;
(iii) There are indications from journalists Kelly was thinking this wouldn’t be a big deal. It was only when there was a photo that the abuse became something that couldn’t be denied;
(iv) Kelly lacks judgement. He should have followed up with the FBI given the importance of Porter’s role;
(v) This may be a sign of the kind of issues that can arise when the White House has a problematic relationship with the FBI
Trump, as noted above, was pretty annoyed at the handling of this whole episode by John Kelly and Hope Hicks. Thus, there were those expressing some hope he was developing a sense of awareness of how to behave in such situations. In the wake of the affair, speechwriter David Sorensen also resigned. That appeared to speak to Trump improving as Sorensen was also unable to get a full security clearance due to the FBI uncovering a history of spousal abuse. (Sorensen denies he’s an abuser and says he is the victim. That may be true but if so, he’s been unable to prove it after several months.)
But it turns out that what Trump was so “pissed” about was not Kelly’s failure to ensure that all staff were of the highest calibre not only in their ability, but in their character. It was the media catching them screwing up, and especially admitting they were wrong. I say this because when Trump spoke about the issue he, unbelievably, made everything worse. There was no acknowledgement whatsoever of the women, or even a general reference to the problem of abuse in relationships. Instead he called the media in and proceeded to praise the abuser, express how sad he was that he was gone, wish him well for the future, emphasize that he strongly denies the allegations, and empathize about how sad the abuser must be.
In my opinion the problem is partly Trump, but mostly Kelly.
Trump is part of the problem because his appalling attitude to women is well known and thus provides a poor example. The fact Trump is likely to be accepting of bad treatment of women is, I suspect, a given. He’s never tried to hide it either. He spoke openly in an interview about his advice on relationships with women:
I tell friends who treat their wives magnificently, get treated like crap in return, “Be rougher and you’ll see a different relationship.”
He’s a serial adulterer, he boasts of being able to physically abuse women because of his status, and he regularly insults women about their appearance via tweets. He also has a history of expressing support for men who are serial abusers, including Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Roy Moore. (You’ve got less chance of getting Trump’s support if you’re not white though. The Central Park Five can attest to that.)
It’s pretty safe to say that those working for Trump also voted for him. Therefore they were able to overlook his sexism, racism, and bigotry even before they were accepting jobs in the White House.
There’s this assumption in the US too that there is nothing more honourable than a military man, especially a senior military man. Trump himself has this weird respect for them. He listens to them like he listens to no one else.
But the evidence doesn’t really back up the impression. In reality, it’s a bit like saying your children are always safe with a priest. Just two days ago, ABC News reported that reported sexual assaults at the elite West Point military academy had double in the last year. It’s extremely unlikely that the number of assaults have doubled in that time. What’s likely changed is that the #MeToo and #NoMore movements have led to greater reporting. The military itself has also been attempting to improve its record in that area in recent years.
Further, it appears that John Kelly has a history of defending abusers if they’re good at their job. Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman of the New York Times made this report:
In the article attached was this:
[John Kelly] appeared as a character witness in a 2016 court-martial of a Marine colonel accused of sexually harassing two female subordinates. Mr. Kelly praised the colonel as a “superb Marine officer.”
Many are now arguing for the dismissal of Kelly too. The problem is who would replace him. No one who is qualified wants the job. The rats are fleeing the sinking ship.
So Rob Porter is gone. Getting rid of an abuser should have ended the matter. What appears to have happened instead is an exposure of deep dysfunction.
Most thought the appointment of Kelly and the resignation of Bannon, Gorka, Preibus, Omarosa, Scaramucci et al had put the White House on a better track. It appears the Kelly appointment was instead just paper over a yawning abyss.
Things are going to get worse at the White House. Ironically, Omarosa might be right when she said, “It’s not going to be okay.”
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