Jurisprudence

Rob Porter’s History of Domestic Abuse Wasn’t a Secret. It’s Just That No One Cared.

The cops, the FBI, and the White House chief of staff all knew, and he still continued to rise through the ranks of our government’s highest office.

Photo illustration: John Kelly, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Rob Porter, Donald Trump.
John Kelly, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Rob Porter, Donald Trump.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images, Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images, and Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images.

As it turns out, the first #MeToo story to actually trip up the White House needed to be as graphic and violent as the accusations against Rob Porter. It needed to involve a Rhodes Scholar golden boy who had been married—married—to old-fashioned girls to even count. This, and indeed the entire situation, provides the perfect mirror to reflect all the ways in which systems, all systems, fail women.

Until Wednesday, Rob Porter was the White House staff secretary. Long before Wednesday, many of the people to whom he reported knew he had physically abused and assaulted both of his wives. Colbie Holderness, Porter’s first wife, and Jennifer Willoughby, Porter’s second wife, both told the FBI their marriages had ended because of a pattern of physical and emotional abuse. According to their accounts, supported by photos, contemporaneous reporting to others, and a blog post written by Willoughby last April, Porter kicked these women, he punched and choked one of these women, he blackened one of these women’s eyes. He berated and insulted these women. Police were called. But Rob Porter is also white, and the son of a prominent academic and thinker. He went to Harvard and Oxford, and he had a high-ranking job in the Oval Office, and was reportedly pressing for a higher one. He was dating Hope Hicks, one of the president’s closest confidantes. So nobody did a thing about the allegations.

Right up until Tuesday night, Chief of Staff John Kelly was praising Porter as “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.”

Willoughby’s blog post detailing her abuse did not name Porter, but it did use her own name.
It has been live since April 24, 2017. She wrote: “The first time he called me a ‘fucking bitch’ was on our honeymoon. (I found out years later he had kicked his first wife on theirs.)” Porter reportedly begged her to take it down because anyone who read it had to have known it was referencing Rob Porter, the guy at the White House. Another thing that is clear from the blog post is that the police knew: Willoughby filed for a protective order in Arlington, Virginia, in 2010, and she called them on at least one other occasion. Both women reported the abuse to elders in their church and to counselors. Holderness told her brother and his girlfriend. And then, as their mutual ex-husband was being cleared for his job in the White House last spring, both women told the FBI. They actually thought, at that point, somebody might care.

Please stop saying that women don’t tell. These women told. They told the stories of likely the most intimate and traumatic moments of their lives to family and church elders and friends and counselors and FBI officers, and they saw the following happen: Porter was not given full clearance. He was, however, given an interim security clearance. Senior staff in the White House knew why his clearance was snagged by the fall. According to Politico, John Kelly, Donald Trump’s chief of staff and Porter’s boss, also knew of the 2010 protective order against Porter. Don McGahn, the White House counsel, also knew, according to Politico, because in recent weeks a third woman, an ex-girlfriend of Porter’s who also works in the Trump administration, told him that Porter had abused her and his two ex-wives.

But right up until 9:31 p.m. Eastern on Wednesday night, John Kelly was standing by Rob Porter. Even when others had distanced themselves, John Kelly reiterated his opinion that Porter had true integrity and honor.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R–Utah), for whom Porter had previously served as chief of staff, initially told the Daily Mail the allegations against Porter came from lying “character assassins.” His full comment:

It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man. 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.

Hatch changed his statement on Wednesday, after learning the actual details leveled by the actual victims. His new statement read:

I am heartbroken by today’s allegations. In every interaction I’ve had with Rob, he has been courteous, professional, and respectful. My staff loved him and he was a trusted advisor. I do not know the details of Rob’s personal life. Domestic violence in any form is abhorrent. I am praying for Rob and those involved.

Apparently “I didn’t see it with my own eyes in the workplace,” is the new “thoughts and prayers.” Note that the central moral issue was no longer the scurrilous women who must have lied to a slanderous press, but Hatch’s own heartbreak. He didn’t apologize to the women he had maligned hours earlier, and it’s not entirely clear if they are part of the group of people for whom Hatch is praying.

John Kelly again evinced no concern for or even interest in these women in his statement Wednesday night:

I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society. I stand by my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming Chief of Staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation. I accepted his resignation earlier today, and will ensure a swift and orderly transition.

It is not clear what the “new allegations” were, since there was nothing he knew at 9:31 p.m. Wednesday he hadn’t known earlier that day, save, perhaps, for the fact that there was a photo. The man we’ve all been feting as the “adult in the room” turns out to be just as adept at disappearing victims of domestic abuse as all the other adults, namely those in the FBI and the Mormon church, who had also known of the allegations against Porter and done nothing.

Today, in response to a question about whether he believes the women claiming Porter abused them, Sen. Hatch said, “I don’t believe them all but I think there’s enough there that you have to take it very seriously.”

This questions of “enough” was coincidentally also the subject of a powerful piece from Catharine MacKinnon in the New York Times last Sunday, about why the #MeToo movement is accomplishing what decades of formal legal reforms could not achieve. MacKinnon wrote that “it typically took three to four women testifying that they had been violated by the same man in the same way to even begin to make a dent in his denial. That made a woman, for credibility purposes, one-fourth of a person.” To Republican leadership, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby and the third, as-yet-unnamed victim of Rob Porter still seem to amount to maybe 75 percent of a person. Maybe the photo of the actual black eye is the other 25 percent.

There are many ways to disappear a woman complaining about predation and abuse. You can insult and demean them, as Hatch initially did. You can tell them that action is not worth the cost, as Willoughby recalls officials in the Mormon church telling her—“Keep in mind, Rob has career ambitions,” one of them apparently said after hearing her story. Or you can ignore them, as Kelly, McGahn, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and the White House have done. You can ignore them by refusing to call them by their names, refusing to credit their stories, and by changing the subject to the injuries and suffering of the poor man who has been accused and also the suffering of the poor men who befriended him. As MacKinnon wrote in her column, which could well have been about Holderness and Willoughby:

Even when she was believed, nothing he did to her mattered as much as what would be done to him if his actions against her were taken seriously. His value outweighed her sexualized worthlessness. His career, reputation, mental and emotional serenity and assets counted. Hers didn’t. In some ways, it was even worse to be believed and not have what he did matter. It meant she didn’t matter.

Taken together, all the grown-ups in the room protected, privileged, and covered for Rob Porter despite everything they knew about his pattern of abuse, because his career was important to them. Even well-educated, high-status, articulate white women who were lawfully married to Porter didn’t matter enough to be taken seriously.

Please stop asking why women don’t come forward. These women did. They believed that once the police, the FBI, the White House, and John Kelly knew what they knew, Porter would stop ascending in their ranks. They were wrong.

Rob Porter’s father wrote eloquently about the presidency and “a tone from the top.” The tone from the top of the Trump administration has unerringly been that women are to be cherished and protected right up until the moment they stop being docile and decorative, and then they are to be dismissed and humiliated. Rob Porter’s defenders knew everything they needed to know. They did nothing because he was visible to them and his accusers were nothing. But the tone comes from the top, and nobody should be even a bit surprised.