Deputy White House press secretary Raj Shah on Thursday attempted to explain the about-face Chief of Staff John F. Kelly has performed on domestic violence accusations against Rob Porter, who has resigned as staff secretary.
Asked why Kelly initially backed Porter before later saying he was “shocked,” Shah said that Kelly at first was not “fully aware” of the abuse claims made by Porter's ex-wives.
What does “fully aware” mean? It means, according to Shah, that Kelly “had not seen images” — as in these images of Colbie Holderness, Porter's first wife, who says he punched her in the face during a vacation in Italy in 2005.
The White House's position that images are a game-changer recalls the most infamous domestic abuse episode in recent memory. In 2014, the NFL suspended Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for a mere two games after he was arrested for allegedly knocking his then-fiancée unconscious. Only when TMZ published a video that showed Rice in the act did the Ravens cut the star player. The NFL increased its penalty to an indefinite suspension, a move later overturned on appeal.
The Rice video also drew a response from the White House. In a news briefing like the one Shah held on Thursday, Obama spokesman Josh Earnest said, “Hitting a woman is not something a real man does, and that's true whether or not an act of violence happens in the public eye or, far too often, behind closed doors.”
Noting that many violent incidents do happen behind closed doors, with no visual evidence, Noah Bierman of the Los Angeles Times asked Shah, “What about women who don't have photographs?”
“I don't think any standard applies,” Shah said. “I just think that we do take allegations of misconduct, of domestic violence, other issues like that, very seriously. We are concerned about them.”
Yet the message from the Trump White House is that women's accusations of abuse should be viewed skeptically, absent photos or videos. Recall that President Trump condemned Al Franken when a photograph showed him placing his hands over a sleeping woman's breasts but stood by Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama in the face of sexual misconduct claims that lacked visual proof. It's also worth a reminder that the president himself stands accused of sexual assault by 20 women.
There was a partisan component to Trump's comments on Franken and Moore, to be sure, but the implication from his administration is not that women should be presumed credible but that they better produce something the public can see if they hope to be believed.