As his White House has become engulfed in controversy over its handling of allegations of spousal abuse leveled against former Staff Secretary Rob Porter, President Donald Trump has privately questioned the credibility of the accusers. In fact, the president has gone as far as to express doubts to aides and friends about the assault allegations, and has asked repeatedly if there are any reasons Porter’s two ex-wives could have to make up such claims, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the conversations.
Trump’s skepticism has been apparent in discussions with confidants and officials, who tell The Daily Beast that, at least in their conversations, he has not expressed sympathy for the ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, who have gone on the record to allege physical violence.
“[It is] 100% not what’s on his mind,” one source close to Trump who has spoken with the president in recent days told The Daily Beast, referring to the well-being of alleged victims. The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Trump has, however, made clear his displeasure with how his own staff has handled the Porter scandal, multiple sources tell The Daily Beast. Among those whom the president believes have done a less-than-adequate job include Communications Director Hope Hicks, who has been dating Porter, and Chief of Staff John Kelly. According to a Friday report from ABC News, the latter told Trump he would resign over his handling of the Porter scandal if the president asked him to. The White House denies that Kelly “offered” his resignation.
In particular, sources say, Trump has mused about how awful media coverage has been lately on Porter and the White House, and “how terrible” it appeared that the administration had—in a jarringly uncharacteristic move from Trump-world—copped to an error in its handling of the matter.
For the president, it was a reversion to the mean: his knee-jerk impulse to defend those loyal to him crashing against the efforts by his team to manage the situation. Trump has dispensed with self-reflection and self-doubt before when it comes to standing by political allies and those close to him. Among those who he has defended against accusations of sexual harassment or assault include failed Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, the late Fox News architect Roger Ailes, and former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson. (The president himself has been accused by numerous women of sexual misconduct. The official position of the White House is that all the women are liars.)
Even Trump’s defenders find it tough to, well, defend.
“I’m a supporter of the president but I’m not a surrogate of the president here,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump aide who has remained publicly supportive of the president, when asked of Trump’s history of being persuaded by mens’ denials. “That’s his issue not mine.”
Those close to Trump say that he is monomaniacally committed to never admitting fault, which extends to those questioning the quality of his hires. In his comments on Friday, Trump heaped personal and professional praise upon Porter. “We certainly wish him well. It's obviously a very tough time for him. He did a very good job while he was in the White House,” the president gushed. “We hope that he will have a wonderful career.”
The statement represented a staggering shift in White House strategy which had evolved from an initial, strident defense of Porter early this week, to disappointment but acceptance in his resignation, to disowning him entirely. On Thursday evening, the White House provided The Daily Beast a brief statement on the condition of anonymity, in which it stressed that officials felt ”misled by Mr. Porter’s characterization of the [then-]impending allegations from his ex-wives.”
In failing to follow his own White House team’s spin Trump was, aides and friends say, attempting to address his concerns that the scandal had, to that point, made him and his administration look bad. But instead of fixing matters, the president raised additional questions about his capacity to run the White House and the acumen of the team he has surrounded himself with.
“I think it is shocking that Hope Hicks still has a job,” said Katie Packer Beeson, the deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. “At the outset, she should have said, ‘I’m conflicted. [Press secretary] Sarah [Sanders] you need to handle this.’ She didn’t. She put the White House in a really bad spot and she should lose her job for that.”