Just 14 months ago, both of the women who'd once been married to Rob Porter got horrifying Facebook messages and texts from a third woman who said she was now dating Porter — a top GOP Capitol Hill aide on a path toward the Trump White House — and wanted to talk to them about "repeated abuse" in their relationship.
"I work in politics, and despite Rob's repeated abuse, some of which I think many know about, he continues to rise and I'm afraid to go against him," the woman wrote in a December 2016 message to Porter's first wife, Colbie Holderness, viewed and reported on Wednesday by CNN (emphasis mine). "I'm sorry to bother you. I wanted to reach out and hear your story if you are willing to share — as well as how you broke out of it with him and mostly, how you recovered."
The message was hardly a surprise to either woman. Porter's second ex-wife, Jennifer Willoughby, has since told reporters that he began calling her a "(bleep)ing bitch" on their honeymoon, mainly because she didn't have sex with him often enough, and when they were separated in 2010 she went to court and obtained a protective order after Porter put his hand through a glass door pane looking for her. Holderness told a similar story, punctuated by an incident in 2005 on a vacation in Florence, Italy, when Porter allegedly struck her in the face and gave her a black eye — which she then made him photograph.
It's (probably) true that the Trump White House didn't have these photographs when they hired Porter — who'd been chief of staff to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a conservative icon — for the critical behind-the-scenes job of staff secretary to the president, working closely with chief of staff John Kelly to control the flow of important people and paperwork into the Oval Office.
But they knew.
They knew that the FBI had interviewed Porter's ex-wives while conducting their background check and was refusing to grant him a security clearance — something that you'd think would be essential for an aide shuttling sensitive and sometimes top-secret paperwork onto the commander in chief's desk. And, according to reports quoting unnamed administration officials, they almost certainly knew more than that — keeping with Porter's ex-girlfriend's warning that many in Washington knew were aware of his abuse, and yet he continued to rise.
They knew, and when journalists from the Daily Mail and then other news orgs began calling, their first response was practically Nixonian in their desire to stonewall, lie, cover up, and pray that the story would somehow go away — anything not to deal with the reality of a serial wife-beater in the corridors of American power.
In a cruel irony in a presidency that has practically trademarked the phrase "cruel irony," communications director Hope Hicks — who is widely reported to be Porter's current girlfriend — was enlisted to draft over-the-top statements of support. None was more tone-deaf than the initial reaction from Kelly, who was once falsely touted by Beltway access journalists as "the adult" who would save Trump's presidency. Instead, the retired Marine general sounded more like the brainwashed hero of The Manchurian Candidate.
"Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can't say enough good things about him," read the initial statement from Kelly. "He is a friend, a confidante, and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him." White House press secretary Sarah Sanders also defended Porter as someone who's been "effective" in his job, as if that wipes away the mounting evidence of spousal abuse and what should be disgust at the gross immorality that comes attached to that. It was only after the release of the Florence photos and after Porter had resigned his White House job that Kelly raced out a second, dead-of-night statement that he was "shocked," that this wasn't the Rob Porter he knew.
You could make the case that the photos were the incontrovertible proof that the White House needed, but in reality Kelly and company had long had enough evidence to keep this wife-beater out of the Oval Office. No, the import of the photos was that it made it impossible for the Trump White House to perform that one task that it truly excels at: lying.
This all happened just as I was becoming alarmed that Trump Fatigue Syndrome was getting the better of me. In the hours before the Porter scandal broke, the president had channeled his Inner Mussolini into calling Democrats "treasonous" for not applauding him during the recent State of the Union while word leaked of his determination to hold a massive military parade in Washington that probably (if it ever indeed happens) won't be much different from the dictatorial glory of the military parade for North Korea's Kim Jong Un that just happened TODAY.
Each one of these developments sparked the same level of outrage as when Trump trashed our democratic norms in the first year of his tragic presidency, but also brought on more recent feelings of despair and exhaustion. The horrifying pictures released by Colbie Holderness are a reminder, though, and why we must always document evil, and never get too exhausted to speak out against it.
John Kelly needs to resign or be fired. The glare of the White House has exposed what Kelly managed to hide beneath his Marine uniform during a long and often distinguished military career — his tired and at times offensive views on gender, on immigration and what it means to be a good American. They are dangerous ideas that very much dovetail with the racism and misogyny of his new boss, Donald Trump — for whom Gen. Kelly has been a happy foot soldier. I'd warned way back in August, in this space, that Kelly had already shown he is not a good person, after ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and Border Patrol morphed into a national secret police during his brief time at Homeland Security. His departure probably won't make the Trump White House a better place, but it will allow us to cling to the notion that there is left some sense of decency in America's numbed political consciousness.
But let's be clear about something else: Kelly's departure won't erase the stain of toxic masculinity that Donald Trump's presidency has splashed across the American psyche. This is a government that was literally created in a stew of misogyny that simmered when a qualified woman finally won her party's presidential nomination, and then boiled over in denial that a serial sexual predator was her chosen opponent. This house of cards is convinced that it will collapse with any acknowledgment that harassment, abuse, violence and all the other hallmarks of a decadent patriarchy are finally fueling a political and social revolution in this country. Witness, for example, how slowly the Republican Party has reacted to the sexual-assault allegations against its former finance chair, Steve Wynn. And now we've seen that taken to its ugliest extreme, with Soviet-style denial of a wife-beater with an all-access pass into the Oval Office.