A senior White House official said Wednesday that he would resign after his two ex-wives accused him of physical and emotional abuse, with one presenting pictures of her blackened eye.
The official, Rob Porter, served as the staff secretary, a title that belies the role’s importance in any White House — but especially in President Trump’s. Porter functioned as Chief of Staff John F. Kelly’s top enforcer in their shared mission to instill discipline and order in what had become an extraordinarily chaotic West Wing. He was the gatekeeper to the Oval Office, determining which articles and policy proposals reached the president’s hands and screening the briefing materials that his visitors shared with him.
Aides had been aware generally of accusations against Porter since late last year, White House advisers said, but learned of the specifics late Tuesday when approached by a reporter from DailyMail.com, which first detailed many of the allegations. Porter’s ex-wives said they informed the FBI in January 2017 of their allegations against him while they were being interviewed by agents as part of Porter’s security clearance review. It was unclear when or whether the FBI informed the White House. The FBI did not respond to a request for comment.
Porter said on Tuesday that he would resign, after the allegations were first published, people close to him say, even as he told White House officials he had never physically abused women. But he was talked out of it by Kelly and others, according to these people, with Kelly saying he believed Porter’s denials and saw him as a valuable ally in the White House. Kelly continued to press him to stay in his job Wednesday, saying he could weather the storm, but Porter decided the controversy had become too much after the photos of his ex-wife’s blackened eye appeared Wednesday morning.
In interviews with The Washington Post and other media outlets, Porter’s ex-wives described him as having a dark side and, at times, a violent streak that White House aides say they did not see.
Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, said in an interview with The Post that he was continually abusive during their marriage. She alleged he punched her in the face during a trip to Florence in 2005 and provided photos showing her with a black eye.
“He threw me down and punched me in the face,” she said. Holderness said she had insisted that he take pictures of her bruised eye after the assault and he agreed. “He was trying to make it up to me, and I said I wanted evidence if this should happen again.”
Porter denied the accusations but said he was stepping down from his job, although it was unclear when he will officially leave the White House.
“These outrageous allegations are simply false. I took the photos given to the media nearly 15 years ago and the reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described,” he said in a statement. “I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign.”
On Wednesday night, Kelly issued a statement condemning Porter’s alleged abuses while still expressing support for his aide.
“I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society,” Kelly said. “I stand by my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming Chief of Staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation. I accepted his resignation earlier today, and will ensure a swift and orderly transition.”
Porter’s second wife, Jennie Willoughby, received a temporary emergency protective order in Arlington in June 2010 after saying he refused to leave her residence, in violation of their separation agreement. She said he broke her window, causing his knuckles to bleed. The document, a copy of which was obtained by The Post, concludes that “reasonable grounds exist to believe that [Porter] has committed family abuse and there is probable danger of a further such offense.”
Kathryn Hughes, a 36-year-old public relations consultant who lives in Kamas, Utah, said that in 2012, Willoughby confided in her about another violent incident, in December 2010, in which Willoughby alleged that Porter grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her from the shower during a fight. Hughes said that she and Willoughby met in 2010 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Alexandria and that they struck up a close friendship.
“She told me that he had been screaming at her while she was in the shower and yanked her out and bruised her,” Hughes said in an interview with The Post, corroborating Willoughby’s account. “She also told me he was verbally abusive, and I witnessed some of that.”
Willoughby and Holderness said they talked to the FBI about Porter twice last year, once in late January and then again months later. Willoughby provided the contact information for the FBI agent she spoke with, who declined to comment when reached Wednesday. Holderness said that when the FBI asked her whether Porter was vulnerable to blackmail, she answered affirmatively, because of the number of people aware of his abusive behavior.
“I thought by sharing my story with the FBI he wouldn’t be put in that post,” Holderness said. “I’m telling the FBI this is what he’s done, and Jennie Willoughby is telling them what he’s done, and the White House says, sure, this is okay? I was let down by that.”
Willoughby said Porter angrily called her when she wrote a blog post about him in April — without naming him — and asked her to remove it, concerned about his image. She said Porter demanded again in the fall that she take down the blog post, citing delays in his security clearance. In January, he asked her again to take it down, she said, telling her that reporters were looking into his past.
“He has never faced repercussions that forced him to confront his issues,” Willoughby said in an interview Wednesday at an Alexandria restaurant. “I care about him and want what’s best for him, but that doesn’t necessarily mean him keeping his job, because he needs to face these underlying issues.”
White House officials said early Wednesday that Porter could continue working for several weeks, but as the backlash grew Wednesday night, a senior White House official said he was expected to leave within 48 hours. Porter is an ally of Kelly, and in addition to serving as staff secretary, he oversaw and sought to streamline the White House’s policymaking process, working with Cabinet members and other agency officials and leading meetings about issues including immigration and trade. He played an integral role in crafting Trump’s State of the Union address last month.
Kelly saw in Porter a partner in professionalizing the operation. Porter is one of the few senior White House staffers with past government experience, having served as chief of staff to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah). Though many of his colleagues have eclectic backgrounds, Porter boasts a classic pedigree as a Harvard University-educated Rhodes scholar whose father, Roger B. Porter, held senior positions in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses.
In a White House known for its ever-evolving personnel dramas, Porter kept a low profile, only rarely agreeing to be interviewed on the record and never appearing as a surrogate on television.
But he was a highly visible figure in Trump’s orbit. He was seemingly omnipresent in the Oval Office for key meetings and events, and regularly traveled with the president — often being one of only a handful of aides to accompany him on the Marine One helicopter before joining the larger staff entourage aboard Air Force One. When Trump spent weekends at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida or his Bedminster golf course in New Jersey, Porter often was along for the trip, tending to the president’s needs and briefing him on developments.
When the allegations were published Tuesday, the White House mobilized to defend Porter.
White House communications director Hope Hicks is dating Porter, according to people familiar with the relationship, and was involved in the White House’s defense of Porter on Tuesday evening. “Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him,” Kelly said in a statement Tuesday night. “He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”
The White House also distributed a statement from Hatch defending Porter. “It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man,” Hatch said in a statement. After the release of the photos of Holderness’s bruised eye, Hatch released a new statement.
“I am heartbroken by today’s allegations. In every interaction I’ve had with Rob, he has been courteous, professional, and respectful,” he said. “My staff loved him and he was a trusted advisor. I do not know the details of Rob’s personal life. Domestic violence in any form is abhorrent. I am praying for Rob and those involved.”
Porter’s most recent ex-girlfriend, who also works in the administration, reached out to the White House last year to express her concerns about him after she discovered his relationship with Hicks, according to a senior administration official. She told the White House counsel’s office about allegations from his ex-wives, this person said. That development was first reported by Politico.
The decision by Kelly and other top White House aides to defend Porter from domestic-violence allegations is in keeping with Trump’s modus operandi. Throughout his life, Trump has refused to apologize for alleged misdeeds, believing any such concession to be an admission of guilt and a sign of weakness.
During the 2016 campaign, more than a dozen women accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault, but the then-candidate denied them all outright. He fought back against the accusers, calling the women liars and even threatening to sue some of them.
Trump’s posture and inclinations have shaped the culture of the West Wing, where aides often hunker down and try to fight back against accusations or scrutiny from the media or other outside forces.
Asked Wednesday whether Trump had any concerns about the allegations against Porter or with the photos of Holderness, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I don’t know.”
Vice President Pence, who is travelling in Asia, said he was unaware of any of the allegations against Porter until he learned of them Wednesday while in Tokyo.
Porter had a reputation in the building for his fastidious work and was liked by the president, who sometimes rages at other aides. His ex-wives said that Porter directed his abusive behavior toward them in private.
“In my experience, his anger and his lashing out is very much limited to intimate, personal romantic relationships,” Willoughby said. “He has the ability to compartmentalize and maintain his integrity and professionalism at work. . . . He is charming and intelligent and fun and chivalrous and — in capital letters — angry and deeply flawed.”
Willoughby, a writer and former high school teacher, said she was unaware of the abuse alleged by Porter’s first wife while she was with him. But Holderness reached out to her through Facebook in late January 2017 after she was contacted by the FBI and anticipating the background-check interview.
The two met for lunch in Arlington in March and shared their stories — months before they were contacted by reporters and shared those stories publicly this week.
Philip Rucker, Tom Jackman and Ashley Parker contributed to this report.