In the 24 hours before White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigned amid reports that he had been emotionally and physically abusive to two of his wives, the White House was ratcheting up a campaign in his defense.
President Donald Trump’s chief of staff John Kelly and press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders pushed back on the accusations, advancing a narrative that Porter was not just an honorable person but also indispensable to the West Wing’s operations.
By Wednesday morning, however, events had begun overtaking spin. The White House convened several small meetings to determine what was to be done about “Porter-gate,” as one senior White House official said. Among the options weighed included having Porter leave the White House, allowing him to weather the fallout, or encouraging him to take “some time off,” the official said.
They settled on a departure, though two officials confirmed to The Daily Beast that Kelly, for his part, had implored Porter not to quit.
The recently resigned Trump aide said there would be a “smooth transition” around Porter’s exit. But virtually nothing about the episode can be categorized as “smooth.”
The saga began with a Daily Mail piece published on Tuesday evening that reported on allegations of routine domestic abuse by Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness. “He was verbally, emotionally and physically abusive and that is why I left,” she told the Mail, which previously reported on Porter’s romantic relationship with White House communications director Hope Hicks. “He was angry because we weren’t having sex when he wanted to have sex and he kicked me,” Holderness recalled. “It seems such a juvenile thing at the time, but I remember thinking about words my mother had told me when it happened.”
In a separate story, the Daily Mail reported that Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, said she was “walking on eggshells” during their marriage due to Porter’s short temper.
High-ranking White House officials and other Republicans lined up to defend Porter in the face of the allegations. The Daily Mail’s first story ran on-the-record remarks from chief of staff John Kelly, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Sen. Orrin Hatch praising Porter’s character and professional reputation.
But hours after the initial story broke, another shoe dropped. Ryan Grim, Washington D.C. Bureau Chief for The Intercept, tweeted photos of Holderness—which she had shared with the publication—showing bruises on her face. The Intercept’s story detailed her allegation that Porter had assaulted her during a vacation in Italy. It also said that the FBI had interviewed both of Porter’s ex-wives about their respective incidents during his application for a security clearance last year.
In a statement addressing the matter, Porter called the allegations “outrageous” and claimed that he himself had taken the photos. “[T]he reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described,” he added. “I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign.” Porter did not respond to The Daily Beast’s follow-up inquiry regarding what the “reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described” even means.
Porter’s resignation is another stain on an administration that has had more than a few staffers resign in controversial fashion. It raises questions about how Porter was allowed to stay in his post even with Kelly reportedly aware of the incidents prior to Tuesday night’s story in the Daily Mail; and how he was able to do his job reportedly without having a full security clearance.
Beyond that, however, it creates another layer of operational difficulty for this administration. Porter is just the latest high-profile departure from a White House that has been racked by high rates of turnover. Even now, the White House is in the throes of a significant senior staff exodus. Deputy national security adviser Dina Powell recently departed, and deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn, who announced his intent to resign in December, is on the way out. Sean Cairncross, a deputy chief of staff and special assistant to the president, was nominated last month to lead the Millenium Challenge Corporation. Other recent departures, such as short-lived communications director Anthony Scaramucci, have been replaced immediately and internally, rather than by new hires. Others, such as former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and Omarosa Manigault-Newman, haven’t yet been replaced at all.
The White House did not say who would replace Porter as Staff Secretary. But the hole will be hard to fill. Porter had been playing an increasingly sizeable role in hour-to-hour operations and policy discussions inside the West Wing. Colleagues, former and current, said that his ascendancy was in part due to the fact that the president’s inner circle had been starved for actual in-house policy minds.
Porter had his enemies, including former Trump campaign manager (and current outside adviser to the president) Corey Lewandowski, who had agitated for Porter’s ouster. But Porter was —and is—close with many senior administration officials including senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, economic adviser Gary Cohn, and Kelly.
Kelly, in particular, valued Porter’s contributions to bringing at least a small measure of stability and limited control to an Oval Office that he himself was trying to rid of dysfunction. One of Porter’s main responsibilities was to control the paperflow to the president’s desk (a hallmark of the Kelly era) in the hopes of curtailing the amount of fringe and far-right news articles and memos that used to flood Trump’s deskspace.
It was an initiative that routinely chafed the impulsive and stubborn president. According to two White House sources, Trump would bristle at Porter when he entered the Oval Office with large stacks of documents for the president to sign. Before long, Porter became synonymous in Trump’s mind with the mundane clerical work that his staffer would pile upon the Resolute Desk.
“Oh, here we go,” Trump would often sneer at Porter, papers in tow, as the president noticeably rolled his eyes before grabbing a pen.