The Trump administration is now embroiled in a scandal over a top staffer’s alleged history of spousal abuse.
White House staff secretary Rob Porter announced Wednesday that he would resign his post, after his two ex-wives came forward publicly with allegations against him. His first wife, Colbie Holderness, released pictures of herself with a black eye that she says Porter gave her by punching her in the face. And his second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, revealed that she filed for an emergency protective order against him.
But what looks like a personal scandal has quickly became a political one, as questions have arisen about why Porter got and kept such an important job even though top government officials have known of the allegations against him for some time — and even though the FBI reportedly refused to grant him a permanent security clearance.
Until this week, Porter was widely viewed among GOP establishment types as a competent, respectable, and stabilizing force inside the White House. After the allegations began to surface, top Republicans, such as White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Porter’s former boss Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), went out of their way to defend Porter, vouch for his good character, and say he shouldn’t resign. (They’ve now backtracked somewhat, but not completely.)
Porter also recently began dating White House communications director Hope Hicks — one of just a few staffers who have been at the president’s side since he started his campaign back in 2015.
Porter’s exit seems likely to have a major impact among Trump’s inner circle and on the basic functioning of the administration as a whole. And while the scandal is unique in its personal aspects, the White House’s failure to respond to it looks like just part of a larger story of its tumultuous staffing and its laxity toward security concerns.
Who is Rob Porter?
Though it’s quite possible that you’ve never heard of Porter before this week, he held one of the most important, but low-profile, jobs in the Trump administration, and he’s a very connected person in the world of Republican politics more generally.
Porter’s father, Roger B. Porter, worked in the White House for three GOP presidents — Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush. The elder Porter also long taught a high-profile class at Harvard called “The American Presidency” — a class Jared Kushner took.
The younger Porter overlapped with Kushner as a Harvard undergraduate in the early 2000s. After he graduated, he was a Rhodes scholar in political theory and then returned to Harvard for a law degree. A few years later he headed to Capitol Hill, working in succession for Sens. Mike Lee (R-UT), Rob Portman (R-OH), and Hatch, for whom he served as chief of staff.
In January, the incoming Trump administration chose Porter to be White House staff secretary. This is a crucial post that involves managing the paper flow to the president — from decision memos to policy and news briefing documents. When Business Insider’s Allan Smith profiled Porter last September, he said he had “the most important behind-the-scenes job in the administration.” (He quotes several GOP establishment types heaping praise on Porter.)
In the ensuing year, Porter’s influence inside the administration continued to rise. He was widely viewed as a competent, stabilizing presence in a dysfunctional, chaotic White House.
After John Kelly came in as chief of staff last summer, Porter ended up serving as a crucial ally in Kelly’s effort to install a more rigorous process. Porter began traveling with the president, playing more of a policy role, and helped write Trump’s State of the Union address last month. Even his personal life even drew him further into Trump’s inner circle, as he recently began dating a longtime Trump aide, White House communications director Hope Hicks.
What are the allegations against Porter?
But behind this sterling public profile, Porter demonstrated a pattern of emotionally and sometimes physically abusive behavior in his personal relationships, according to allegations made public by both of his ex-wives this week.
1) Colbie Holderness, Porter’s first wife, alleges:
- That he kicked her during their 2003 honeymoon
- That he threw her down and choked her several times
- That he threw her down and punched her in the eye during a vacation in 2005 — the effects of which she says are pictured here
“He would get angry and throw me down on a soft surface — to his credit, it was always a soft surface like a couch or a bed — and he would lay on top of me shaking me, or rubbing an elbow or a knee into me,” Holderness told the Intercept. “He graduated to choking me, not ever hard enough to make me pass out, or frankly to leave marks, but it was frightening and dehumanizing.” Referring to the time he she says punched her and gave her the black eye, she said, “Up until then, he had always done it in a way that didn’t leave marks.”
Porter released a statement denying Holderness’s claims. “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. I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign.”
2) Jennifer Willoughby, Porter’s second wife, has also come forward to speak out about her ex-husband.
‘My experience of our entire marriage was being with a man who could be both charming and romantic and fun — and even thoughtful and kind; and horribly angry and manipulative,” Willoughby told the Daily Mail. “It was the duality of both of those things existing at the same time and not necessarily knowing what in his life would trigger the anger.”
Willoughby married Porter in 2009, but by the following year, the two had separated. In June 2010, she filed an emergency protective order against him in an Arlington, Virginia, court (obtained by the Daily Mail), writing:
She told the Daily Mail that later that year, in December 2010, the two had an argument, and she went off to take a shower. “He was not done fighting with me. It was a glass shower door, he opened it and dragged me by my shoulders out of the shower to yell. Immediately upon seeing my reaction to that, he released me and apologized but it doesn’t take away that he was angry enough that that happened.”
In April 2017, Willoughby wrote a blog post describing her marriage with Porter (though not naming him). She described the above incidents, and wrote, “He belittled my intelligence and destroyed my confidence. … In my home, the abuse was insidious. The threats were personal. The terror was real.”
Asked about all this, Porter told the Daily Mail, “I will not comment about these matters, beyond stating that many of these allegations are slanderous and simply false.”
3) An ex-girlfriend of Porter’s who dated him more recently has not come forward publicly, but both Holderness and Willoughby say she contacted them describing “repeated abuse” and asking for help with leaving him, according to CNN.
“Rob was abusive, degrading, a liar and a cheater and during the course of my relationship with him, I found out that he was to others, too,” she wrote to Willoughby in February 2016.
“I work in politics, and despite Rob’s repeated abuse, some of which I think many know about, he continues to rise and I’m afraid to go against him,” she wrote to Holderness in December 2016, per CNN.
The scandal is also about how the Trump administration responded to the allegations
Beyond the scandal of Porter’s alleged personal conduct, there are increasing questions of how the Trump administration responded to it.
Several reports claim that senior White House officials have been aware of the allegations for “months” (CBS News’s sources say they learned of them in November). Per the Intercept, the FBI interviewed both of Porter’s ex-wives during his background check, and they spoke of their alleged abuse. Holderness even provided a photograph of her injuries. Apparently due to this, Porter has been unable to get a permanent security clearance. Politico also reports that White House counsel Don McGahn was recently contacted by an ex-girlfriend of Porter’s who made allegations against him.
There are two issues here. The first is simply that these are very serious allegations, and it doesn’t seem that the White House cared enough to act on them until the scandal became public.
Indeed, Chief of Staff Kelly reportedly urged Porter to stay in his job even after the first public reports of the scandal surfaced this week, going so far as to release a statement calling him a “man of true integrity and honor.”
The Times reports that White House aides are now saying Porter “misled” Kelly “about the severity of the allegations” and “portrayed the women as making up stories to cause trouble.” It is unclear why Kelly would simply take that explanation at face value. (He has since changed his tune on Porter somewhat.)
The second issue is about Porter’s security clearance — or lack thereof.
We’ve now learned that despite the enormous sensitivity of Porter’s job — he’s in charge of managing the White House paper flow and determining which documents the president sees — the FBI never approved him to get a permanent security clearance. (He likely had a temporary clearance instead.)
The background check process is specifically meant to surface information like this: scandalous information in a staffer’s past that could potentially expose him to blackmail and put government secrets at risk. Holderness told the Washington Post that the FBI interviewed her and asked whether she thought Porter would be vulnerable to blackmail, and she said yes, because many people were aware of his alleged abusive behavior.
Why, then, was Porter kept in his post after the FBI told top White House officials about all this? Democrats were already calling for investigations of the Trump White House’s handling of security clearances after reports that Jared Kushner has also had trouble obtaining a permanent clearance.
“Mr. Kushner’s case raises serious questions about whether his situation is an isolated one among White House senior staff. It also raises concerns about the clearance adjudication process for White House staff generally,” Reps. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), and Elijah Cummings (D-MD) wrote last month.
The Porter revelations seem to vindicate these concerns and could well draw increased congressional scrutiny toward the security clearance issue. The situation is also simply emblematic of the White House’s continued struggles to recruit and retain top people. Until this week, Porter was widely viewed as one of their best and most competent hires. But it turns out that even with him, the story was darker than we knew.