It’s becoming increasingly clear: The White House was well aware of credible allegations of domestic violence against former White House staff secretary Rob Porter for months, perhaps even immediately after the inauguration — and did nothing.
Last Tuesday, the Daily Mail reported that Porter had been accused of domestic violence by two of his ex-wives, with an emergency protective order filed against Porter in 2010 by his second wife.
The allegations against Porter are incredibly serious. The emergency protective order Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, filed against Porter in 2010 followed a series of violent incidents, as Willoughby wrote in a blog post in April 2017 titled “Why I Stayed”:
A month later he physically prevented me from leaving the house. Less than two months after that, I filed a protective order with the police because he punched in the glass on our front door while I was locked inside. ... Everyone loved him. People commented all the time how lucky I was. Strangers complimented him to me every time we went out. But in my home, the abuse was insidious. The threats were personal. The terror was real. And yet I stayed.
Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, said that Porter kicked her during their honeymoon, eventually punching her in the face during a vacation to Italy two years later.
Senior White House aide Rob Porter physically assaulted two ex-wives, they tell @theintercept. Full story to come in the morning.— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) February 7, 2018
His first wife, Colbie Holderness, provided these photos from a vacation they took together in Florence, Italy: pic.twitter.com/tl3TbyGA8Y
The FBI was aware of these allegations. So was the White House. And yet no one took action. In fact, Porter continued to rise in the White House ranks, gaining more responsibility, including helping to write President Trump’s first State of the Union. In effect, the White House took the side of a domestic abuser — over that of the women he abused.
The FBI knew
Seven days after President Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017, the FBI received photographs of Holderness showing her with a black eye that she said was caused by Porter punching her in the face. This was part of a background investigation conducted by the FBI into Porter, standard practice for high-level White House staff.
The FBI also talked to Porter’s ex-wives, Holderness and Willoughby, in January 2017. Porter was aware of the interviews taking place, allegedly sending a friend to talk to Holderness’s husband and ask that Holderness not tell the FBI about the allegations.
We don’t know exactly what Holderness and Willoughby told investigators. But in discussing Porter’s violence elsewhere, they’ve said that Porter would choke and hit them, with Willoughby adding in an interview with CNN, “He started calling me names, calling me a ‘f---ing bitch,’ how I behaved was ‘f---ing ridiculous’ and most of that was instigated around my not having sex with him often enough on our honeymoon.” Holderness told the Intercept that Porter’s anger was constant. “He was always a hair-trigger away.”
Later, the FBI also asked Willoughby for access to the 2010 emergency protective order she filed against Porter, saying that it was needed “in furtherance of the background investigation.” She signed off on that request, and the FBI later submitted those details to the White House. In the protective order, Willoughby said that Porter had entered the home they’d shared during their marriage — breaking a window in the process — and refused to leave.
The White House knew
White House counsel Don McGahn knew about the allegations against Porter from the very beginning of the Trump administration. CBS News reported that it was actually Porter who told McGahn in January 2017 that his background check might reveal the allegations against him.
The FBI submitted its partial report to the White House in March 2017. According to FBI Director Christopher Wray, the agency completed the full background check on Porter required for a security clearance in July 2017.
Mark Zaid, a lawyer specializing in national security, told CNN, “I would be surprised that if in their partial report in March [submitted to the White House], the FBI either didn’t include the photo [of Holderness] or, at a minimum, reference they had photographic evidence of the domestic assault.”
Besides the reports filed in March and July, the FBI submitted additional information (including the emergency protective order) in November. Around that same time, McGahn himself had received a phone call from a girlfriend of Porter’s, who told him that Porter could not be trusted.
But when McGahn told White House Chief of Staff John Kelly about the reason for the holdup in Porter’s background check that same month, Kelly said that Porter should stay in his role as staff secretary using an interim security clearance. That clearance would have been adjudicated by the personnel security office, run by Joe Hagin, Trump’s deputy chief of staff for operations. But decisions on clearances for White House staff, though typically keeping FBI recommendations in mind, are largely left up to the White House itself.
And by January, when Kelly was reportedly aware that Porter would never be able to receive a permanent security clearance, Porter was being considered for a promotion to deputy chief of staff.
This is correct. There were discussions earlier in year about promoting him to a policy-overseeing role, similar to deputy COS for policy. Something Porter wanted. https://t.co/otHndKPf60— Jonathan Swan (@jonathanvswan) February 13, 2018
The White House excused domestic violence it was well aware of
Not only was the FBI made aware of these allegations during its background check into Porter, but high-ranking White House staff were too, for months. And yet Porter continued to rise in the ranks, with discussions of a potential promotion taking place just weeks before he was forced to leave office. Even when the Daily Mail approached the White House last week with its reporting on the allegations against Porter, Kelly defended Porter as “a man of true integrity and honor” before quickly changing his story, saying on February 7 that he was “shocked” by the “new allegations” against Porter.
But the allegations weren’t new. And they were well known, not only to the FBI tasked with investigating Porter for a potential security clearance, but to the White House personnel security office, to McGahn, and to Kelly himself by at least November 2017. And yet no one took action. Instead, Porter was given more support, more authority — and a full-throated defense, with Kelly saying that Porter should “stay and fight” the allegations and Trump himself wishing him well.