The Rob Porter Scandal

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.

Jennifer Willoughby, 2nd wife of Rob Porter

Jennifer Willoughby, 2nd wife of Rob Porter (Source: Daily Mail)

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.

Hope Hicks and Rob Porter

Hope Hicks and Rob Porter (Source: Daily Mail)

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.

Rob Porter and Donald Trump

Rob Porter presenting a document to Donald Trump in the Oval Office (Source: Reuters via Daily Mail)

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.

Colbie Holderness, first wife of Rob Porter, with a black eye,

Colbie Holderness, first wife of Rob Porter, with a black eye that was allegedly the result of Porter hitting her in the face. (Source Colbie Holderness via Daily Mail.)

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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24 Responses to “The Rob Porter Scandal”

  1. nicky says:

    Thank you for that, you have put everything neatly in a row.
    I’m convinced now that Mr Kelly has a lot to answer. He did bring some order in the WH, but now he’s become part of the problem.
    Still, I find it incredible that a (moot) photo is what triggered it, and not a long history of abuse from 2 (or even 3) different sources.
    The biggest problem, of course, remains Mr Trump. If he hadn’t been elected, I’m sure he would not have gotten a security clearance 🙂

    • I didn’t want to say in the actual post, but I can’t imagine Obama putting up with this. I think he’d want to know more from the FBI, and when he found out, with or without the photo, Porter would be asked to resign at the very least. And you can bet that if he was asked to resign rather than sacked by a Democratic president, the right-wwing media would be all over him.

  2. Diane G. says:

    “There’s this assumption in the US too that there is nothing more honourable than a military man, especially a senior military man.”

    Not universally, though those who feel differently are probably unlikely to say so in public.

    Nice write-up, Heather!

  3. Laurance says:

    Thanks, Heather! You point out:

    “(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;”

    Ugh. Me, too. I’m a 76-year-old woman, and what I learned from the get-go is that if there aren’t bruises, broken bones and blood, there wasn’t abuse. And if there ARE bruises, broken bones and blood, well, it’s your fault! What did you do wrong? You must have provoked him. You’re the only one to blame.

    And non-physical abuse didn’t exist, as far as what I’d been taught. What was happening to me was not considered abuse. It only meant that I was not trying hard enough. I wasn’t doing things right. My situation was my choice and my fault.

    I’d hoped that by now society’s attitudes had changed, and indeed there has been some change. But not enough. There’s still too much of this same old junk.

    (I’m glad to be reading your blog. I see you on Jerry Coyne’s site.)

    • It’s always nice to have a new reader and commenter.

      I’m so sorry you had to go through that. I saw so much of the verbal and emotional abuse in so many marriages when I was a kid, almost always men to women, it made me very wary of marriage. And when the man got physical, the first question was always, “What did you do.” Most people, even the police back then, called it, “Just a domestic.” I remember when the Police in one region in NZ started arresting and prosecuting abusers on a trial basis there was all sorts of outrage. It wasn’t long before they realised it had positive benefits and it became policy throughout the country to do the same. No one says, “It’s just a domestic,” any more, which is progess. Many still aren’t so good at recognizing more insidious forms of abuse though unfortunately.

  4. rickflick says:

    I wistfully imagine how Obama would have handled such a situation. As soon as he heard about it he would have had a quick investigation and then fired the perp, given a press conference to denounce abuse including some sagacious commentary on how the crime affects the lives of women. The entire affair would have be done and over with by the following day.
    I know Obama’s administration was considered one of the cleanest ever and I don’t recall if there was an event involving staff comparable to the Porter situation(anyone?…anyone?). But, I’m pretty sure most Americans(especially women) long for the halcyon days of the last administration.

  5. Linda Calhoun says:

    Thank you, Heather, for this.

    I have followed the comment threads from several sites on this.

    There is an outpouring of the dudebros’ lament, “How can you convict someone, and ruin his life, over unsubstantiated accusations? What about due process?” In general, not a word of support for the women. Also not a mention of the photographs which had been turned over to the FBI well prior to his employment.

    I’m starting to wonder, though, how much of that is real, and how much of that is Russian bots. Is it possible that so many men in our country are that insensitive? Is it possible that so many men in our country have that much time on their hands to generate all those comments?

    It’s bad enough that the current administration has the attitude that they do toward women. But, on top of that, we now have to wonder whether the bulk of our male population are like the Trumpies, or whether Russia is trying to give us that impression just to divide us further.

    Regardless, the whole thing is disgusting.


    • BigBillK says:

      I would submit that although it isn’t a majority of ‘Murrican males, it is indeed a very large plurality. I live in an area loaded with them – SW PA.

    • I ended up going through the Twitter responses to a comment while writing this post. There were a lot that I was pretty sure were Russian bots. It was something about the way they expressed themselves, the sort of issues they focused on etc. Others, unfortunately appeared to be all too real. When they’re empowered by a president like Trump, and encouraged by Russian bots, extreme right-wing media, and Christian extremists, a lot of pretty vile stuff comes out of real people. I saw a lot of really scary attitudes in some Twitter feeds.

  6. Randall Schenck says:

    I knew that I would probably need to come over to this site to see this story reviewed as it should be. Maybe you could have titled this, What you will not get at some other sites. Excellent report although you are likely giving too much slack to Trump on the issue. The fish rots from the head as they say and there is no worse track record on women’s rights or an concern for women that I know of. You can be sure that long ago it was known to Trump this guy could not get the security clearance required for the job and was not concerned because he was not concerned with the crimes. Right up until yesterday morning (Saturday Morning here) Trump was still sad and feeling sorry for Porter and still not one word about the women he abused.

    So all those doubters over at those other sites can bang on about the poor accused or cry like baby Trump and say, what about rule of law. Many of those guys over there at other sites need to take a look in the mirror and ask themselves just what it is that they stand for.

    • BigBillK says:

      Since he (Der Gropenfuhrer) had to sign to renew Porter’s temporary clearance several times, he had to know what the deal was. Then again, he is one of the least curious people in the universe, so maybe not. But you know how he loves kindred spirits, so I’m thinking he did.

    • I do think this was all possible because of who the president is. I tried to make that clear, but perhaps I could have done better.

      • Randall Schenck says:

        Just a note on the morning shows. On ABC a former White House Staff Secretary (Sean Patrick Maloney) now a rep in congress said there is no way this Porter should have been in the chair. They all knew many months ago from the FBI all the stuff on this fellow. He was never going to get the clearance for this job and should have been gone months ago. And I know what it is like to get a secret clearance but it is nothing like the clearance required for this job. The FBI, one of the agencies that Trump does not seem to think much of, gathers the facts and the rest is up to the idiot.

  7. Jenny Haniver says:

    Again I’ve got to go to New Zealand to get a concise account of what’s happening in the US. And all these highly educated, cultured, upstanding white men who abuse their wives and girlfriends; they’re the first to condemn and heap opprobrium on non-white men, calling them savages and rapists.

    It should also be noted that the White House is crawling with people handling top secret info who have no security clearances (beginning with Jared Kushner. Why am I not surprised?

    • Jenny Haniver says:

      Good grief! There’s more:”DOD report – felons, people under foreign influence received security clearance

    • Yeah, I was going to include that in the post, but it was getting too long, and I’d mentioned it the day before. After 13 months all these people without security clearances who aren’t going to ever be able to get them, like Porter and Sorensen, should be gone.

      I would like to note that if Trump went through a background check, he would not be able to get a security clearance either. Australia wouldn’t give him a Visa a few years ago because of his links to organized crime. He has a history of spousal abuse. There are a whole lot of ex-mistresses out there. I often wonder if the reason he never criticizes Putin is because they have something on him and are blackmailing him.

      • Jenny Haniver says:

        Well, if we here in the US have a president who wouldn’t pass a security clearance, it’s no wonder that he fills the White House with these squirrelly folks. Par for the course.

        “Mark R” below coined an apt phrase for those of us who get more detailed, concise, and reliable news analysis from you “News Zealand.” +1

  8. Mark R. says:

    Thanks for this distillation. I’ve been following this story closely, but you still were able to fill in a couple gaps. I’m glad I can get more facts from News Zealand. 😉

    I’d also like to add that the black eye is on the mend in that (now infamous) photo. From a medical site: Within 1 or 2 days, the hemoglobin (an iron-containing substance that carries oxygen) in the blood changes and your bruise turns bluish-purple or even blackish. After 5 to 10 days, the bruise turns greenish or yellowish. Then, after 10 or 14 days, it turns yellowish-brown or light brown.

    So based on this (and my own experience with contusions) this photo was taken many days after she was hit. I’m sure this disturbing photo would have been more disturbing the day after…swollen, black and blue…not yellow/green without swelling. I don’t know why I’m pointing this out, but for some reason I thought it relevant.

    • nicky says:

      Indeed, as I pointed out on earlier threads, about 2-3 weeks old. And easily faked (again, I do not think this photo is faked). The real point is that there was a long history of abuse, and from 2 to 3 independent sources. A photograph of a 2-3 weeks old ‘black eye’ should not clinch it, it is the history that should be sufficient.
      If we accept that a photograph is necessary, we’re going to miss a lot of abuse.

      • nicky says:

        You pointed it out because -well I guess- so many films show a recent ‘black eye’ without swelling. Ridiculous. Just like the hero knocking out the Villain barehanded without damage to his (indeed generally a male) hands, no fracture and able to, say, play the piano. In real life it does not work like that. I’ve too often seen (long ago as medical officer) that after the guy with a broken jaw, the perpetrator comes with a broken hand.

  9. nicky says:

    On spousal abuse. I do not think it is a given that ‘male on female’ is a given, For physical abuse, it is clear that males are generally the culprit. However, I was surprised how often the physical attacks were initiated by women (probably for good reasons, but that is not the point here), but for obvious reasons women often come second best in these situations, and hence become víctims. Therefore, yes, in physical abuse men generally are more to blame than women.
    On verbal abuse I disagree with you Heather. Generally women are much better at that than men. And I talk from ‘lived experience’ 😆 (note I never answered verbal abuse with physical violence). Paradoxically, physical violence often is the recourse of the powerless or defeated.

    • I’m not sure what you mean by, “disagree with” me Nicky. I don’t think I made any comment about male vs female or vice-versa. I’ve acknowledged before that men are victims too, and always speak of abuse as being something that isn’t only suffered by women.

      This post is about this situation, where it seems the abuse is one way – from Porter to the women he’s involved with. His second wife publicly reports no direct physical abuse (there was indirect physical violence, such as punching in a window), but does report an enormous amount of other abuse.

      All couples argue. That is not necessarily abuse on either side, but obviously I have no knowledge of your situation. Women, in general, argue differently than men. I wouldn’t call it better. As always, it depends on the person. I recommend the old book ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ which explains that difference quite well iirc.

      (I’ve never owned a copy, but I read some of it while staying with a friend 20+ years ago. I found it pretty accurate in the way it described male-female couple relationships. Often just understanding that stuff makes all the difference.)

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