clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigns after abuse allegations

The administration official reportedly did not have full security clearance.

House and Senate Republican Retreat
Former White House staff secretary Rob Porter (right) with White House counsel Don McGahn.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

A top White House official is stepping down after reports from his ex-wives that say he was emotionally and physically abusive, according to the Washington Post. The scandal raises questions about how White House staff secretary Rob Porter was able to either get a security clearance or do his sensitive job without it.

The Intercept reported that the FBI learned of the domestic violence allegations against Porter last year during a security clearance background check. CBS News and Politico reported that Porter never had a full clearance.

Porter announced his resignation on Wednesday and denied the accusations against him, which first appeared in the Daily Mail.

Porter might not have been a high-profile name in President Trump’s White House, but he worked closely with Chief of Staff John Kelly to vet and decide what was sent to the president’s desk. Porter previously worked as the chief of staff to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) before joining the administration at the start of Trump’s tenure.

The firestorm around Porter began late Tuesday after the Daily Mail published a story saying that Porter — who is reportedly now dating White House communications director Hope Hicks — had been abusive toward his two ex-wives. The Washington Post and the Daily Mail both obtained a copy of a June 2010 temporary protective order against Porter relating to his second wife. The Intercept also spoke with his first wife, Colbie Holderness, who described the abuse and told the publication she had informed the FBI about Porter’s behavior.

The allegations raise big questions about how Porter got his job

The fact that the federal government knew that Porter had been accused multiple times of domestic violence raises serious questions about how Porter rose to such an influential position in the White House.

The White House had expressed support for Porter when allegations emerged on Tuesday, before he announced his resignation: “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,” Chief of Staff John Kelly said in a statement.

The Daily Beast reported that Kelly, in addition to voicing his public support, had urged Porter not to step down.

But multiple reports suggest the federal government knew about the allegations. The Intercept reported Wednesday that the FBI was aware of the abuse allegations against Porter, which they uncovered during a background check for security clearance. The bureau interviewed both ex-wives during the check, and Holderness — Porter’s first wife — told the Intercept she’d sent the FBI the photo of herself with a black eye, which she said happened after Porter hit her in Florence.

A federal law enforcement source also confirmed to CBS News that the FBI was aware of the abuse allegations after the background review. Per CBS News: “That information was passed on to the White House.”

A senior administration official told Politico that Kelly was aware of the 2010 protective order against Porter, which in fact prevented him from getting full security clearance. Two sources also told CBS News’s Major Garrett that Porter had not obtained full security clearance, primarily because of the allegations against him.

“As has always been our policy, we do not comment on security clearances,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement. “Rob Porter has been effective in his role as staff secretary. The President and Chief of Staff have full confidence in his abilities and his performance.”

Porter denies the allegations — but there’s a photo of his ex-wife with a black eye

Holderness, who married Porter in 2003, told the Daily Mail that Porter “was verbally, emotionally and physically abusive and that is why I left.” She also provided photos that showed her with a black eye, which she said happened after Porter punched her in the face in a Florence hotel room around 2005. She also provided the photos to the Intercept and repeated the allegations to CNN in a lengthy interview.

“Up until then, he had always done it in a way that didn’t leave marks,” Holderness told the Intercept about the alleged incident in Florence. “I don’t know if that was conscious or not. 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. 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.”

Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, told the Daily Mail that she was “walking on eggshells” during their marriage and that she had filed an order of protection against Porter in 2010 after she said he violated their separation agreement and punched a glass door in their home. (The couple married in 2009; they divorced in 2013.)

CNN also reported Wednesday that a third woman, claiming to be Porter’s girlfriend, wrote to Holderness and Willoughby in 2016 about Porter’s abuse. According to CNN, the unnamed woman, who works in the federal government, wrote to Holderness that “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.” CNN’s report also says she sought advice from both women on how to leave him.

Hatch, Porter’s former boss, originally called the story “a vile attack on such a decent man.” After Porter’s resignation, he issued a new statement that said, in part, “I do not know the details of Rob’s personal life. Domestic violence in any form is abhorrent and unacceptable.”

Hatch later reversed course again, saying the report was a “tremendous embarrassment” to Porter but that he should “fight his way through this,” according to Frank Thorp of NBC News:

Porter has denied the allegations against him, though it appears he is resigning from his position. “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,” he said in a statement.

He then added that he would “seek to ensure a smooth transition when I leave the White House,” indicating he would not be leaving the administration immediately.

Update: This post has been updated with additional details about the allegations against Porter.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.