Since Rob Porter’s resignation as White House staff secretary on Wednesday, it’s become clear that key officials in the administration knew about the domestic abuse allegations levied against him by his two ex-wives before Porter was forced to resign.
It’s not entirely clear how many aides in the White House knew that Porter’s two ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennie Willoughby, accused Porter of physical abuse and violent behavior, but several aides had at least some idea that Porter faced damaging abuse allegations by late last year — including White House Counsel Don McGahn and chief of staff John Kelly.
Despite this, the White House projected an image of ignorance in its early reaction to the allegations made public on Tuesday. When the Daily Mail published its first account of the ex-wives’ allegations on Tuesday, White House officials issued statements of support for Porter. As subsequent reports surfaced with more details about the allegations, however, Porter’s departure from the White House became a more urgent matter.
In an interview with the Intercept published Wednesday, Holderness said that Porter once punched her in the eye on a vacation to Italy in 2005. Prior to that incident, Porter had allegedly thrown her onto the bed, rubbed his elbow or knee onto her, or started to choke her, Holderness said, and gave the Intercept photos of herself with a black eye that she said Porter gave her during the 2005 incident.
Porter’s second wife, Willoughby, told the Daily Mail on Tuesday that Porter once dragged her from the shower during an argument. She also revealed that she filed a protective order against Porter in 2010 after he allegedly punched through the glass door to her apartment.
Porter has denied all the allegations against him. According to the Washington Post, he has told friends that Holderness got the black eye in 2005 when the two were arguing over a vase and the vase hit her in the face somehow.
White House officials now say that they feel misled by Porter’s characterization of his relationships with his ex-wives, as the administration works to mop up the mess surrounding Porter’s departure.
Here’s a timeline detailing who at the White House knew what, when they knew it, and what they did about revelations regarding Porter’s relationships with his ex-wives:
Porter, a former senior staffer for Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), joined the White House early in the Trump administration. As staff secretary, he controlled the flow of papers to Trump’s desk and became an increasingly crucial member of the White House staff.
White House Counsel Don McGahn learned in January 2017 that Porter’s ex-wives were going to make damaging accusations against him, but he did not know specifics about the allegations at the time, according to the Washington Post. Porter delivered this information to McGahn, telling him it would come up in the background check for his security clearance, according to CBS News. A White House official told the Washington Post that McGahn did not ask Porter for more details about the accusations because Porter said they were false.
The FBI interviewed both of Porter’s ex-wives in January 2017, according to their accounts. Both told the Intercept that they detailed their accounts of Porter’s behavior in their relationship to the FBI at the time. Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, said that she provided the FBI a photo of a black eye she says Porter gave her, and his second wife, Jennie Willoughby, gave the FBI access to a protective order against Porter she obtained in 2010, according to the Washington Post.
FBI Director Christopher Wray on Tuesday testified that the bureau “submitted a partial report” to the White House on the investigation into Porter’s background and the allegations against him in March 2017.
On April 24, 2017, Porter’s second wife, Jennie Willoughby, wrote an Instagram post alleging that her ex-husband was abusive to her, though she did not name Porter in the post. Willoughby told CNN that Porter asked her several times over the past year to take the post down.
The FBI sent a preliminary file on Porter, including the allegations of domestic abuse from his ex-wives, to the White House, according to CBS News. McGahn himself did not see the file at that time, according to CBS and the Washington Post. Another lawyer in the White House may have reviewed the file in June, per CBS.
According to Wray, the FBI submitted a “completed background investigation” on Porter to the White House in July 2017.
His testimony appears to contradict the White House’s claims — via spokesperson Raj Shah — that the FBI background check into Porter “was still in the investigative process” and “had not been completed yet” at the time of Porter’s resignation.
Porter told McGahn that he had been interviewed by the FBI a second time in September, according to CBS News. His ex-wives also both spoke to the FBI for a second time in September, per the Washington Post.
Willoughby told the Washington Post that she received a call from Porter on Sept. 21, asking her if she had used the word “violent” to describe his behavior in the relationship. He also complained that he had yet to obtain his security clearance. Willoughby alerted the FBI the next day that Porter had called her, per the Washington Post.
In the same month, McGahn learned that Porter’s security clearance was delayed by accusations of domestic violence, according to the Washington Post. It’s not clear whether McGahn learned this from Porter himself or another source, and it’s not clear what kind of details about the accusations McGahn knew at the time.
The accounting of White House chief of staff John Kelly’s knowledge about the allegations against Porter are a little fuzzier than McGahn’s. Kelly learned that abuse allegations were holding up Porter’s security clearance last fall, but it’s not clear exactly when he learned this and how much detail he had, according to the Washington Post and CNN. Despite learning this, Kelly elevated Porter’s status in the White House and the aide went on to help draft Trump’s State of the Union address, as CNN pointed out.
At some point after the FBI submitted its completed investigation to the White House, the bureau “received requests for follow-up inquiry,” Wray testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Late November 2017
An ex-girlfriend of Porter’s called McGahn in November to tell him about the abuse allegations from Porter’s ex-wives, according to the Washington Post. McGahn passed the ex-girlfriend’s comments on to other officials in the White House, per the Washington Post. A source told CBS News that this was the first time McGahn learned of the specific accusations, an account in conflict with the Washington Post’s reporting that McGahn knew the nature of the allegations in September.
Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that the FBI “administratively closed the file” on Porter’s background investigation in January 2018.
“Earlier this month we received some additional information and we passed that on as well,” he said. (It was not clear what information Wray was describing.)
Kelly learned “several weeks ago” that Porter had been denied a full security clearance because of the 2010 protective order, but had yet to act on terminating Porter’s employment, Politico reported Thursday night, citing a senior administration official.
Feb. 1, 2018
The Daily Mail reported that White House communications director Hope Hicks was dating Porter, and that the two were spotted at dinner and “canoodling” in a cab.
Feb. 6, 2018
Less than a week later, on Tuesday, the Daily Mail published its first of several reports on Porter’s history of alleged abuse. Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, told the Daily Mail that Porter was abusive toward her during their brief marriage, describing one incident in which Porter allegedly pulled her from the shower by her shoulders.
— Daily Mail US (@DailyMail) February 7, 2018
In the immediate aftermath of the Daily Mail report, White House officials defended Porter’s character and claimed to be shocked by the allegations.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Porter was “someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character.”
Kelly also defended Porter, and called him “a man of true integrity and honor.”
Politico reported on Tuesday, however, that Kelly was previously aware of a protective order Willoughby obtained against Porter in 2010. According to an unnamed senior administration official, Kelly considered trying to oust Porter — who could not get a full security clearance because of the protective order — but never did.
Late Feb. 6, 2018
Tuesday night, Ryan Grimm, a reporter for The Intercept, tweeted that he had photos of Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, with a black eye, reporting that Porter physically abused both of his ex-wives.
Senior White House aide Rob Porter physically assaulted two ex-wives, they tell @theintercept. Full story to come in the morning.
His first wife, Colbie Holderness, provided these photos from a vacation they took together in Florence, Italy: pic.twitter.com/tl3TbyGA8Y
— Ryan Grim (@ryangrim) February 7, 2018
Feb. 7, 2018
On Wednesday, The Intercept and the Daily Mail both published reports with Holderness’ account of abuse from Porter. Holderness claimed that Porter punched her on a vacation in 2005, and said that he hurt her physically in other ways previously, such as by choking her.
After the Intercept published its interview with Holderness, Porter said he would resign, but continued to deny the allegations.
Sanders on Wednesday declined to tell the Daily Mail whether she believed the allegations against Porter, and told reporters that Porter’s resignation was “a personal decision” that Porter “was not pressured to do, but one that he made on his own.”
Sanders also said that Porter would not leave the White House immediately. By Wednesday night, however, a senior White House official told the Washington Post that Porter was expected to leave within 48 hours.
In a new statement Wednesday night, Kelly continued to defend Porter, but claimed he “was shocked by the new allegations.”
“There is no place for domestic violence in our society,” he 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.”
Two unnamed White House officials told the New York Times that Porter misled Kelly about the severity of the allegations against him, and suggested that his ex-wives were fabricating the abuse claims, an account that other White House aides did not challenge.
Bloomberg News reported on Wednesday, citing four sources familiar with the matter, that other senior White House aides were also aware of the allegations against Porter, although two unnamed officials said that President Donald Trump was not aware.
Feb. 8, 2018
White House spokesperson Raj Shah on Thursday did not deny that top administration officials knew about the allegations against Porter, but claimed Kelly only “became fully aware” of the accusations on Wednesday. Shah declined to clarify what Kelly previously knew, but added, “I think it’s fair to say that we all could have done better over the last few hours — or last few days in dealing with this situation.”
CNN reported on Thursday that White House communications director Hope Hicks helped draft Kelly’s supportive statement. It was not clear whether Hicks — who is romantically involved with Porter, according to several reports — was previously aware of the allegations against him.
— Daily Mail US (@DailyMail) February 7, 2018
On Thursday evening, according to CNN, Kelly embarked upon an apparent damage control strategy and told staff members in an email, “I want you to know that we all take matters of domestic violence seriously.”
Feb. 9, 2018
The Washington Post on Friday reported, citing two unnamed senior officials, that Kelly told senior staffers in a morning meeting to push a flattering account of his response to the allegations against Porter.
According to the Washington Post, Kelly told staff members to communicate that he acted to terminate Porter within 40 minutes of learning that the allegations were credible. That claim would contradict both Kelly’s previous statements of support for Porter and the White House’s insistence that Porter resigned of his own accord.
“He told the staff he took immediate and direct action,” one official told the Washington Post, and said that after the meeting staffers expressed disbelief in Kelly’s latest account.
CNN reported on Friday that Trump, who was not consulted as part of the initial response to the allegations, has grown frustrated with Hicks as a result of her involvement with Porter.
Trump on Friday told reporters of the allegations against Porter, “We found out about it recently, and I was surprised by it, but we certainly wish him well.”
He said it was “obviously” a “tough time” for Porter.
“It was very sad when we heard about it,” Trump said. “He says he’s innocent. I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent.”
As reporters were ushered out of the room, he added, “We absolutely wish him well.”
This post has been updated.
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