What The Rob Porter Scandal Tells Us About The Trump White House

The Rob Porter story, which is quickly becoming the Rob Porter scandal, tells us a lot about the Trump White House, and none of it is good.

Rob Porter was the now apparently departed Staff Secretary for President Trump. While this sounds like it might be a low-level position, it is in fact perhaps the second most important position on the White House Staff after the Chief of Staff. The person in this position is responsible for reviewing nearly every single piece of paper that gets sent to the President on a daily basis, including items that have some of the highest levels of classification in American government. This means, of course, that the person who holds that position must have a security clearance equal to that of other high-ranking officials such as the Chief of Staff, and that they must be someone who doesn’t have something in their past that could be used as potential blackmail material by a foreign government. This is where Rob Porter comes into the picture, and where the incompetence and utter venality of the Trump White House are revealed for all to see.

It turns out, in case you haven’t heard, that Rob Porter is apparently a man with serious anger management issues. He has been credibly accused by both of his ex-wives of emotional, verbal, and physical abuse that, at least in the case of his first wife, caused injuries serious enough to give her a black eye. He has also been the subject of at least one, and possibly more, Protective Order issued by courts located in the states he was living at the time based on complaints of such abuse by his former wives, and possibly by a third woman with whom he had a long-term relationship after his second marriage but who has yet to come forward publicly. All of this came to the knowledge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation last year when its agents were involved in conducting the background investigation that is part of the standard application for a security clearance. Porter didn’t qualify for that clearance because of these accusations, and has been operating on an interim clearance similar to the one granted to Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner for the past year, although in Kushner’s case the delay in approving a clearance is apparently due to the fact that he’s had to update his application several times due to information he “forgot,” meaning that investigators need to keep the application open to check the new information out before granting a clearance. In Porter’s case, the reason for the delay, and what now appears to be an imminent denial, in processing the application is far more serious.

When reports about Porter’s history of abuse first surfaced in the press earlier this week, the White House essentially backed up Porter’s initial denials, and Chief of Staff John Kelly even went so far as to issue his own statement in which he called Porter an honorable man with high ethical standards and a strong work ethic. That position took a sharp turn, though, when the aforementioned pictures from Porter’s first wife, which show her with a black eye and other bruises on her face, were made public. At that point, the story quickly started to fall apart, and things just went downhill from there:

White House spokesman Raj Shah wouldn’t elaborate Thursday on when Chief of Staff John F. Kelly and others became aware of allegations of spousal abuse by former staff secretary Rob Porter. And now we know why: It’s pretty damning.

The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey and Beth Reinhard report that White House counsel Donald McGahn knew for a year about allegations Porter’s ex-wives made against him to the FBI and that Kelly learned about them this fall, as they were holding up Porter’s full security clearance. And yet Porter kept rising in the White House.

It’s really difficult not to call this a scandal now.

It’s not clear that either McGahn or Kelly knew the full extent of the allegations or that they included spousal abuse, but the best possible explanation is that they seemed to have a real lack of curiosity. It also raises the question of who else in the White House knew, including the president himself.


[T]he White House’s first reaction this week to news of the spousal abuse allegations against Porter was to effusively praise and defend him. Kelly said in a statement that Porter was “a man of true integrity and honor, and I can’t say enough good things about him.” Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “The person I know is someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character.”

The White House has pushed back against allegations of sexual harassment and assault by President Trump himself. It also endorsed and defended Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore in the face of multiple allegations that he pursued and engaged in sexual misconduct with teenage girls when he was in his 30s. The White House seemed to believe it could weather this storm too, as long as this was a rather anonymous staffer and it was a he-said-she-said (or, more aptly, a he-said-they-said)

That seemed to change when one of Porter’s ex-wives, Colbie Holderness, released photos of the black eye she says she sustained when Porter hit her. Shah suggested Thursday from the White House podium that this changed things for the White House and influenced Kelly’s decision to issue a new statement calling the allegations “shocking.”

“It’s the full nature of the allegation — particularly the images,” Shah said when asked why Kelly changed course

Yet those pictures didn’t lead Porter to really change much of anything about his story. He said he took them, but that “the reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described.”

In other words, what really seems to have changed for the White House is that they realized the pictures made their position untenable, from a public relations standpoint. Even when they were confronted with information about Porter that they didn’t care to seek out themselves — as they were promoting him up the ranks — they played it off as if it were a minor nuisance.

And the story doesn’t end there. Subsequent reporting has revealed that the reports about Porter’s past came to the attention of the White House shortly after the F.B.I. spoke to Porter’s ex-wives as part of their background investigation in January 2017. That information was passed along to, at the very least, White House Counsel Don McGahn and was apparently further updated in June of last year when additional information of Porter’s abuse was uncovered. This information was reportedly passed along to other White House staffers, including John Kelly when he was named Chief of Staff last summer. Despite all of this, and despite that it had become apparent by the end of the year that Porter would never receive the full security clearance he needed to do his job, he was allowed to continue in his position and, at least according to some reports, neither Kelly nor McGahn felt that any action at all was necessary. What’s not clear as of yet is whether either or one them, or both, informed the President of what they knew and how he reacted if they did.

As The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus puts it, the White House has a lot of explaining to do:

[E]xplain the photo, which Holderness says was taken after Porter punched her in the face on a trip to Florence. Bruises like this are not self-inflicted. Why does it matter who took the photo? The question is: Who committed the assault?

Explain Holderness’s description, to the Daily Mail, which broke the story, of how, on their honeymoon, Porter “was angry because we weren’t having sex when he wanted to have sex and he kicked me. . . . That was the first time he hurt me and then the doors opened. I didn’t do anything and it continued.” It always does, by the way. Once is never enough for abusers.

Explain the request for an emergency protective order from Jennifer Willoughby, Porter’s second wife, after, she said, Porter “punched in the glass on the door” of their apartment when he refused to leave, in violation of their separation agreement. Explain the finding that “reasonable grounds exist to believe that [Porter] has committed family abuse and there is probable danger of a further such offense.”

Explain Willoughby’s description, in a blog post, of how her husband “pulled me, naked and dripping, from the shower to yell at me.”

Explain how this man could have been allowed to work at the White House after his ex-wives described this abusive behavior to the FBI.

Explain how White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly, who reportedly knew of the FBI reports, could assert, in a statement circulated before and after the abuse photos emerged, “Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional.”

Yes, true integrity. Take a look at that photo, Gen. Kelly, and tell me how a man of integrity behaves. Hint: he doesn’t wait until a dozen hours after that photo was released to assert he is ”shocked” and that ”there is no place for domestic violence in our society.”

Explain, finally, how the White House, with this information public, can allow a man such as this to continue, even for a single additional day, to work there.

Marcus goes on to offers one potential explanation:

The Trump administration suffers from a singularly morally bankrupt strain of this tribalism, in which loyalty to President Trump is prized above all else and failings are ignored, especially failings that echo those of the president himself.

Recall how, after then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was shown on video assaulting Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields, Trump described him as “a very decent man.” Recall how Trump’s first wife, Ivana, used the word “rape” in a divorce deposition to describe how her husband sexually assaulted her in a fit of rage; Ivana later said she did not “want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense” but that “as a woman, I felt violated.”

There’s more beyond that, of course. In the final weeks of the campaign, we were exposed to the now infamous Access Hollywood tape in which a voice that is obviously Trump’s is recording telling television host Billy Bush about instances in which he engaged in what can only be considered sexual assault against an unnamed woman. The release of that tape was quickly followed by a host of women, nineteen in total, who alleged that Trump had acted in inappropriate ways toward them, including things such as routinely entering the dressing rooms used by contestants in the beauty pageant that he owned at the time notwithstanding the fact that the women were in various stages of undress. There have also been reports of Trump regularly making demeaning comments to women in ways not dissimilar to the details provided by many of the women who have shared their own stories of sexual assault and harassment.

Is it any surprise, really, that a White House with a man like this at the top would initially dismiss allegations like this against someone they saw as one of their own? Is it any surprise that he would be allowed to continue in his job notwithstanding the fact the truth about his past was known to top White House officials, and possibly the President himself, from the early days of the Administration onward?

Of course it’s not surprising.

Like any other organization, a White House is a reflection of the person at the top, and in the case of the Trump White House, we have an organization in which such behavior is both ignored and dismissed, all in the name of loyalty to the Trump team. And Rob Porter was a member of the Trump team, so it’s not surprising that the initial response to the allegations of abuse was to defend Porter, and that the necessity of his dismissal didn’t become apparent until the evidence of abuse was all over television and the Internet.

We are witnessing in the Trump Administration a level of depravity that we’ve never experienced before. The President himself displays it for the cameras nearly every time he speaks, and on Twitter whenever he picks up his phone, and the people underneath him take that as a signal and act accordingly. This is life in Trump’s America, my friends, and it’s only going to get worse as time goes on.

Update: President Trump spoke about Porter’s departure today and, as Jake Tapper reports, it’s about what you’d expect:

FILED UNDER: Open Forum, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Matt Bernius says:

    Tangential to this issue, deputy press secretary Raj Shah’s response to comments recently made by Omarosa Manigault Newman unintentionally speaks volumes about how unique this administrations staff has been:

    “Omarosa was fired three times on The Apprentice and this was the fourth time we let her go,”

  2. Mark Ivey says:

    “It’s really difficult not to call this a scandal now.”

    Unless you are a Republican, then it ain’t no thing at all..

  3. Pete S says:

    I agree with everything you wrote, Doug. I just wish this episode was surprising or taught us anything we didn’t know and hadn’t learned over and over and over again..

  4. SenyorDave says:

    @Mark Ivey: If you are a Republican you know the real scandal is that the media is not assigning blame to the real culprits, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton

  5. @Matt Bernius:

    I watched that briefing. Shah made Sarah Huckabee Sanders seem professional by comparison.

  6. Matt Bernius says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    I given him credit for actually saying “I think it’s fair to say that we all could have done better these last few days in dealing with this situation.”

    But it definitely went downhill for him after that. And I’m not sure being that honest and candid is the best approach for this particular Whitehouse either (at least not in so much as it might play internally).

  7. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    This is life in Trump’s America, my friends, and it’s only going to get worse as time goes on.

    The big problem is that this is becoming normalized; Denture Donnie may turn out to not be an anomaly, but the first of a new trend…a trend that will likely end the United States as we know it.
    And Hope Hicks, who works for an admitted serial sexual assaulter, was fvcking this guy? What kind of woman goes out with a known abuser?
    Erin Gloria Ryan:

    …there’s a special place in hell for women who choose to use what limited power they have to protect men who hurt women.


  8. Mister Bluster says:

    REPUBLICAN President Donald Trump is a self confessed sexual molester of women.
    NO ONE should be surprised that he has surrounded himself with men who beat up women.
    NO ONE should be surprised that REPUBLICANS in the White House, Congress and the electorate DO NOT GIVE A FLYING FUK about this.

    The REPUBLICAN elephant icon needs to be replaced with a Hog in Slop.

  9. reid says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I had it on in the background and barely paid attention, but at least his voice and demeanor didn’t make me want to vomit. Maybe it takes time to build up that reaction….

  10. CSK says:

    And when current girlfriend Hope Hicks turns up for work with a black eye or a broken wrist…what then? Will she still defend him?

  11. michael reynolds says:

    @Mister Bluster:
    Exactly. A fish rots from the head. Trump hires the very worst sorts of people – indeed, those are the only people willing to work for him – with predictable results.

  12. teve tory says:

    There’s an old business saying which applies to Trump:

    “A people hire A people,
    F-minus criminals hire F-minus criminals”


  13. KM says:


    That woman’s playing with fire. At least two men she’s been involved with on staff are known to be violent towards women and the perennial rumor of her angling to be the newest Mrs Trump just puts her even further into harm’s way. If she thinks the public nature of her job will protect her, think again. Plenty of bad things can happen to you that won’t leave visible bruising.

    Girl’s gonna end up on a milk carton if someone doesn’t throw an intervention. ….

  14. MarkedMan says:

    Kevin Drum links to an intereresting tweet from a NYTimes reporter pointing out just how often Kelly has been caught in blatant lies. I may have been generous the other day when I commented that Kelly was one of the few in the Trump administration that reached B level quality. It is turning out that like so many in that cabal, whatever talent they have comes with some huge personal flaw that would have prevented them from ever succeeding in their jobs.

  15. Pete S says:

    @MarkedMan: It is possible that Kelly has b level talent, but f level supervision and f level teammates have dragged his performance to a low d. A mediocre player can look good on a good team, a superstar can look awful on a bad team. But over time the ability of a flawed but not awful player like Kelly cannot keep looking good just by comparison to useless teammates.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @michael reynolds: Oh no, trump hires only the best people. he told me so himself.

  17. gVOR08 says:

    I’m surprised they aren’t arguing that the security problem was that he could be blackmailed. Now that everyone knows about it he can’t be blackmailed. So he should get his clearance and his job back. If nothing else it would be a rehearsal for when Mueller announces Putin has been blackmailing Trump over money laundering deals.

  18. CSK says:

    Well, Trump hath spoken. He praised Porter to reporters this afternoon and concluded by saying: “He says he’s innocent. I think you have to remember that.”


    She does seem to have a taste for abusive men. And it’s interesting that Lewandowsky, the former lover, has been accused of ratting out Porter, the current lover.

  19. the Q says:

    Hope Hicks??? How do we know Porter wasn’t the one abused?

  20. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: “He says he’s innocent. I think you have to remember that.”….. In the context of the fact that everyone in the trump admin lies.

  21. the Q says:

    Harvard Law 92 isn’t commenting? Must be busy arguing before the Supreme Court against a lawyer named Yale Big Dick or busy suing old ladies behind on their rent. If I were a betting man, I’d lean toward the latter.

  22. JohnMcC says:

    But…. Her emails!

  23. CSK says:

    ABC is reporting that John Kelly has offered to resign.

    CNN says the White House is denying it.

  24. Joe says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    “Omarosa was fired three times on The Apprentice and this was the fourth time we let her go,”

    The corollary of this statement is that you hired her 4 times, 3 times after firing her once, 2 times after firing her twice, and 1 time after firing her three times. Only the best people.

  25. gVOR08 says:

    @CSK: I didn’t know Hicks had been dating Lewandowski. Good gawd! Is the woman that stupid or was there a casting couch for the Trumpsky admin? No wonder there’s speculation about Hicks and Lord Small….gloves himself.

  26. CSK says:


    According to the Wolff book, Trump told Hicks that she was “the best piece of tail [Lewandoski] would ever have.”

    Lewandowski and Hicks broke up after a public screaming match in Manhattan in May 2016.

  27. Scott says:

    The other real story is the apparent large use of interim security clearances prevalent among the White House staff. I’ve worked where interim clearances were not allowed and I would think the White House would be an especially important place for permanent clearances. There have been from the beginning, stories about incomplete SF86s (application for clearance). Not only incomplete but gross negligence in completing them. Major financial (especially foreign) interests, foreign trips and personal interactions, etc. were left off. Always claiming inadvertent errors. that reveals an incredible arrogance toward national security and an inherent unfitness for the job.

    If I or my colleagues had engaged in such behaviors, we would have been summarily dismissed.

  28. CSK says:


    Well, Jared Kushner, after over a year, still has only an interim clearance because of all the stuff he keeps “forgetting” to put in his application.

  29. Scott says:


    I didn’t know Hicks had been dating Lewandowski. Good gawd! Is the woman that stupid

    Yes, she apparently is stupid considering that Lewandowski is still married with four children.

    To be fair, maybe that doesn’t matter to her. We don’t know her and shouldn’t attribute personal characteristics that we don’t know about.

    Of course, with Trump, Lewandowski, and now Porter in her past we can start to make guesses.

  30. teve tory says:

    Trump’s been so sympathetic to the guy you’d think Rob Porter was Vladimir Putin.

  31. Jake says:


  32. grumpy realist says:

    @CSK: Probably will, given her prior involvement with another suspected abuser.

    As I told a friend who was complaining about yet another failed marriage: “Maybe you should stop marrying crazy women.”

  33. Kathy says:

    So by “best” in “best people,” Señor Trump meant “ass-kissers.”

    If only we could have seen this coming.

  34. PJ says:

    From the NYT:

    For all the turmoil, Mr. Trump on Friday warmly praised Mr. Porter, saying it was a “tough time” for his former aide and noting that Mr. Porter had denied the accusations.

    “We wish him well,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Porter, who was accused of physical and emotional abuse by two ex-wives. The president added, “He also, as you probably know, says he is innocent, and I think you have to remember that.”

    “He worked very hard,” Mr. Trump told reporters in the Oval Office when asked for a comment about Mr. Porter. The president said he had only “recently” learned of the allegations against his former aide and was surprised.

    “He did a very good job when he was in the White House, and we hope he has a wonderful career, and he will have a great career ahead of him,” Mr. Trump said. “But it was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly he’s also very sad now.”

    Is Trump praising Porter because Trump is despicable?
    Or does Porter have something on Trump?

  35. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Now that was a burn. Ouch! As to Kelly and McGahn, is it possible that they were waiting (hoping??) for the FBI to quickly deny the clearance so that they could simply release Porter without going into details?

  36. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @grumpy realist: Years ago a guy told me a story about what his father told him when he talked to his dad about getting a divorce. His dad replied that it might be okay but that he needed to remember that he would be bringing himself to the next marriage so things might not be that much different.

  37. Mister Bluster says:


    “Although the President is inclined to declassify the … memorandum, because the memorandum contains numerous properly classified and especially sensitive passages, he is unable to do so at this time,” White House Counsel Don McGahn said in a statement.
    By KYLE CHENEY 02/09/2018 07:56 PM EST

  38. CSK says:

    Another WH official has just resigned over domestic violence allegations. This one’s a speechwriter named David Sorenson.

  39. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker:

    I’m always reminded of Rod Stewart’s brilliant quip about marriage (and divorce):

    Instead of getting married again, I’m going to find a woman I don’t like and just give her a house.

  40. Mister Bluster says:


  41. Scott O says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Exactly. A fish rots from the head. Trump hires the very worst sorts of people

    Who else would want to work for him?


    Girl’s gonna end up on a milk carton if someone doesn’t throw an intervention.

    My guess would be that since Mr. Porter is no longer Staff Secretary Ms. Hicks will quickly lose interest in him.

  42. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @the Q:

    Now now, anciano. I practice M&A law.

    You know – take company A & company B, and put them together in such a way that they’re able to avoid taxes and rid themselves of their overpaid domestic workforce.

    To be fair, sometimes it’s just the avoid taxes part.

    Just taking a break at the moment, though, enjoying the sun somewhere you don’t need to know about in the Indian Ocean. Despite your being so disagreeable and nasty, I’m still going to be nice to you.

    Show this to your nurse. It may change your life for the better.

  43. Hal_10000 says:

    By Monday, the Trumpists will be saying that Porter’s wives deserved to get hit.

  44. teve tory says:

    Hillary beat them up.

  45. CSK says:


    Trump is apparently lumbering around the WH frantically looking for someone to assure him that the two women aren’t credible.

  46. Jake says:

    True believers are incapable of accepting disconfirmation. The reason for this is their individual identity becomes so entangled in the cause, that anything contradicting the cause is viewed as a personal assault. That’s why Progressives react to contacts with reality as if they have been violently assaulted. For them, there is no line separating themselves and the cause. An assault on the cause, even just contrary facts, is felt like a kick to the groin. It’s why Progressive women equate free speech with violence.

    There’s another product of this and that’s the inability to adapt to political reality. They set off on a course, with a pleasing narrative in their head, and stick with it no matter what happens. This delusional determination is why the Left keeps at their pet causes with a great deal of success, but it is also why they eventually burn themselves out in an orgy of recrimination. They can’t let go of the dream, even when the cause is lost, so they look for people to blame.

  47. grumpy realist says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker: There was a comment which ended up getting quoted in the FT (about a guy on his third divorce): “Either he has a selection problem or a retention problem.”

    And then of course there’s that great line from Despair.inc: “The common factor in all your failed relationships is YOU.”

  48. HarvardLaw92 says:


    From that same piece that you plagiarized:

    It’s a long war, but Team White has gained some ground on Team Brown.

    For anybody else, I’d say that’s a curious choice of reading material, but given that it’s you, the white supremacist nature of your sources isn’t shocking.

    It isn’t even surprising …

    Don’t forget to wear your sheet and hood, Grand Dragon … 😀

  49. Mister Bluster says:

    @Under Jake’s Pointed Hood: ..They set off on a course, with a pleasing narrative in their head, “You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy.” and stick with it no matter what happens.