It’s incredible what certain kinds of men get away with.
My handsome, clean-cut ex-husband was offered Wall Street jobs and hedge-fund investments despite the fact that I had police documentation that he’d strangled me, held loaded guns to my head and abused me violently throughout our marriage.
So maybe it’s not surprising that U.S. officials at the highest level and Republican insiders failed to act on allegations dating to 2010 so serious that they would place 40-year-old Rob Porter — President Trump’s staff secretary — at the top of the “lethality index” for abusive men, given the accounts of abuse, including strangulation, now made public by two ex-wives.
According to reporting Wednesday by the Daily Mail, Porter’s second ex-wife, Jennie Willoughby, received a temporary emergency protective order against him in Virginia in 2010. Willoughby and Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, said they shared photographs and documentation of their marital abuse with the FBI as part of Porter’s 2017 White House background check. The Trump administration hired Porter anyway.
Porter, who has recently been romantically linked to White House communications director Hope Hicks, said in a statement that “these outrageous allegations are simply false.”
First, the good news in this story: Porter said he would resign within hours of the Mail and other outlets reporting this history, demonstrating again the strength of the media spotlight and the significance of multiple accusers coming forward with consistent stories. But the fact that Porter was hired by, and protected by, top executive-branch personnel and politicians who knew — or should have known — this history of credible abuse allegations shows how much work still must be done to eradicate violence against women around the world.
That’s the bad news.
Like my dangerous ex-husband, Porter is a well-connected Ivy League graduate. He graduated from Harvard University a year ahead of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, became a Rhodes scholar, is a member of the Mormon church and the son of a man who worked for President George H.W. Bush.
But abusers are rarely thugs in public. More often, they are outgoing, intelligent manipulators hiding in plain sight, shielded by professional accomplishments and considerable charm. Their potentially lethal rage is masked by the fact that we, as a society, are ignorant of the complex dynamics of abuse. We find it hard to believe victims when they claim that behind closed doors, rage transforms seemingly upstanding men into lethal weapons.
It can be difficult to reconcile what we know of a co-worker or friend with accusations of abuse against him. Abusers’ rage is rarely triggered in professional, competitive or collegial situations, even in pressure-cookers such as the White House and Wall Street. Abuse, ironically, is more commonly triggered by the love and intimacy of a close, familial relationship. Romantic partners are the experts here. Their testimony should be believed. Few victims lie about something as traumatizing as abuse.
The problem was on full display Wednesday. Despite all of the available documentation, Porter’s associates instinctively reacted with disbelief and diminishment. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch — Porter had worked previously as the Utah Republican’s chief of staff — and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Chief of Staff John F. Kelly all stood by him. “It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man,” Hatch told the Mail, apparently without first taking the time to fully understand the nature of the allegations. Both Hatch and Kelly had to issue second statements after their initial, blindly supportive comments missed the mark so badly.
The stakes of such blindness are high. As we’ve seen too often in recent years, allowing abusers sustained access to unchecked power doesn’t threaten only wives, girlfriends and children. Co-workers, neighbors and the general public can be at risk, too. Think Devin Patrick Kelley from Sutherland Springs, Tex. Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the Boston Marathon. Omar Mateen and the Pulse nightclub. Domestic abuse was the terrifying connection between these men. We need to take it so much more seriously.
One of the most encouraging changes brought by the victims who propelled the #MeToo movement to international consciousness is that our society now recognizes how widespread, invisible and destructive violence against women is. At work. At home. In schools. In families.
And in the West Wing.
Decades of research, advocacy and outspoken testimony by victims have taught us the risks presented by men with abusive backgrounds. So why, given all that we know, was Rob Porter working at the White House?