Don’t Trust the Process

How the White House failed to vet Rob Porter.

Photo illustration: White House chief of staff John Kelly and White House staff secretary Rob Porter. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.
White House chief of staff John Kelly and White House staff secretary Rob Porter.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock and Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images.

President Trump is upset that Rob Porter, his former White House staff secretary, has been forced out by allegations of domestic abuse. “Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation,” Trump tweeted on Saturday. “Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?” On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders repeated that message. “Does the president believe the women?” a reporter asked. Sanders replied: “He believes in due process.”

Due process is a fine thing. But sometimes you have to go around the process, and the Porter case shows why. In this case, the process was supposed to resolve Porter’s fitness to handle classified material, not his guilt. It did neither. A year ago, when the FBI began to check Porter’s background, his ex-wives Colbie Holderness and Jennie Willoughby described how he had abused them. They gave the FBI a photo of Holderness with a black eye as well as a protective order secured by Willoughby, which detailed Porter’s destruction of a glass door. But the evidence went nowhere. Porter’s colleagues didn’t want to believe anything bad about him, and the process, such as it was, helped them look the other way.

The adjudication system for security clearances is a mess. The FBI runs the background checks, but information goes to the White House security office, and nobody seems sure where it goes from there. Trump’s White House counsel, Don McGahn, decided that investigating Porter wasn’t his job. The White House says the FBI didn’t finish the investigation. The FBI says it did. Along the way, somebody dragged out the process; we still don’t know who. It’s a familiar game of “We told them” and “I never saw the file.”

In this accountability-free environment, several factors favored the abuser. Porter’s colleagues didn’t want to believe anything bad about him. His ex-wives, who knew the worst, were reluctant to come forward at first. Holderness thought nobody would believe her. Willoughby was counseled by church elders to avoid hurting his career. In all these ways, the image of Porter as a perfect public servant suppressed evidence that the image wasn’t true.

Like other clever predators, Porter knew how to play the system by impeding the flow of information. He inoculated McGahn by telling him upfront that the ex-wives were bitter and would say false things about him. When John Kelly became the White House chief of staff, Porter sold him the same story. Meanwhile, Porter lobbied Willoughby to take down a blog post that referred, without naming him, to his abuse of her. He asked her to issue a false statement that the post was “therapeutic,” took “liberties” with the truth, and “does not accurately depict my marriage.” He debriefed her before and after she spoke to the FBI. He erupted at her for supposedly telling the bureau he was violent.

The inoculation worked. When McGahn got word that the FBI had heard allegations from the ex-wives, he didn’t investigate. Apparently, he didn’t even look at the FBI file, though he had access to it. Kelly didn’t investigate either. They trusted Porter’s denials. Their deference reeks of a White House run by men who trust other men. But it wasn’t just male colleagues who stood by Porter as the rumors and reports piled up. Sanders defended Porter’s “integrity and exemplary character.” She arranged a meeting at which Porter gave reporters his spin on the allegations. White House communications director Hope Hicks, who was dating Porter, solicited statements in his defense. The women involved in this chain of credulity—the women who chose to work for a man like Trump—were particularly unlikely to rock the boat.

This is a story of cowardice, negligence, and male blindness. But it’s also a warning that no one is above suspicion, and that any of us can be deceived. “An abusive nature is certainly not something most colleagues are able to spot in a professional setting, especially if they are blinded by a stellar résumé and background,” Holderness writes in the Washington Post. In an essay for Time, Willoughby adds: “Everyone wants to talk about how the White House and former colleagues defended Rob. Of course they did! … The truth would be dissonant to everything they believed to be true about the man they knew.”

The FBI closed its file on Porter last month, at a time when Porter was reportedly in line for a promotion. So there’s no reason to think the “process” would ever have exposed him. What brought him down was women putting the evidence together and going public. It began two years ago, when Porter’s then-girlfriend contacted Willoughby. A year later, Willoughby connected with Holderness. The three women began to understand that they weren’t crazy or alone: They were witnesses to a pattern that Porter had kept hidden. “I started to realize that he keeps getting away with it,” Holderness told the Daily Mail. The anonymous girlfriend reportedly contacted McGahn and Kelly last fall. But apparently, it was Willoughby’s blog post that attracted the Daily Mail and resulted in the two articles that forced out Porter.

Now Washington is consumed by arguments about who knew what when. Why did Kelly, Sanders, and others change their tune from Feb. 6 to Feb. 8? There’s a simple answer: The details came out. First came the Daily Mail’s story on Willoughby, with a copy of the protective order and her account of the door-breaking incident. Then Ryan Grim of the Intercept posted the photos of Holderness with a black eye. Then the Daily Mail published its story on Holderness. With each revelation, the details became more appalling. “He would throw me down on the bed, then put his full body weight on top of me, then grind a knee or elbow into my body,” Holderness recalled. She went on to describe being choked: “It was not hard enough for me to pass out, but it was scary.”

Is McGahn derelict in failing to properly vet Porter? Absolutely. Is Kelly misrepresenting the timeline of his turn against Porter? Most certainly. Does this sorry episode underscore the dysfunctionality of the Trump White House and the low quality of the people who work there? You bet. But there’s a bigger story: To get truth and justice, the women abused by Rob Porter had to break out of the system. They had to put the pieces of the puzzle together. And they had to go public.

It’s true, as Trump says, that allegations can shatter people’s lives. But women are people, too. When the system keeps their stories quiet, unexamined in an FBI file and ignored by officials who trust a colleague, that, too, is injustice. Porter shattered the lives of these women years go. And the process didn’t serve them. It served him.