As the FBI conducted a background check on an incoming senior White House official last year, the bureau learned of the man’s history of domestic abuse. Rob Porter, a top aide to President Donald Trump, physically assaulted both of his previous wives, according to the two women. Porter’s first wife said she was physically abused for years, providing a photograph she took of herself after she said Porter hit her while on vacation in Florence, Italy — a photo she also shared with the FBI.
During the background interviews for Porter’s security clearance related to his senior White House role, FBI agents interviewed the two women. The former wives told the FBI that Porter was abusive during their marriages, according to interviews with the women. For Porter, the FBI interviews marked a collision of his professional ascendancy and his sometimes violent private life.
Colbie Holderness, Porter’s first wife, provided her correspondence with the FBI to The Intercept. (The FBI did not respond to a request for comment, and the agent involved in the exchange declined to speak about the case.) In an interview, she said the pattern of violence in her marriage to Porter began on their honeymoon in the Canary Islands in 2003 and continued from there.
“He only punched me once, in the eye,” Holderness said. It was during a vacation in Florence in 2005. She said, “He threw me down on the bed and punched me in the face. I think he was shocked that he had lost control to that extent.”
Porter resigned Wednesday, with an undetermined effective date, amid the allegations.
Porter did not respond to requests for comment from The Intercept made through phone calls and text messages. Nor did White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders provide a comment in response to a query about Holderness’s detailed allegations and photo. In remarks to the British tabloid the Daily Mail, which reported some of the allegations of spousal abuse, Porter denied some of the charges and a raft of White House officials and one U.S. senator spoke to the strength of Porter’s character — all before Holderness detailed her part of the allegations to The Intercept.
Porter has kept a low public profile but is reported to be a powerful figure in the White House, a gatekeeper of the flow of information to Trump. According to Politico and the New York Times, Porter, the White House staff secretary, has been part of a two-man team, alongside Chief of Staff John Kelly, who decides what makes it to Trump’s desk.
In Florence, Holderness took photos of her face and emailed herself copies, which she shared with The Intercept.
“Up until then, he had always done it in a way that didn’t leave marks,” Holderness said. “I don’t know if that was conscious or not. He would get angry and throw me down on a soft surface — to his credit, it was always a soft surface like a couch or a bed — and he would lay on top of me shaking me, or rubbing an elbow or a knee into me. He graduated to choking me, not ever hard enough to make me pass out, or frankly to leave marks, but it was frightening and dehumanizing.”
“He threw me down on the bed and punched me in the face.”
“He was always a hair-trigger away.”
Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, wrote about her abusive relationship in a blog post on April 24, 2017, but did not name Porter. After finding the blog post, The Intercept independently identified Holderness as Porter’s first wife and approached her for an interview.
The blog post detailed what Willoughby said was Porter’s abuse. “The first time he called me a ‘fucking bitch’ was on our honeymoon,” Willoughby wrote. “A month later he physically prevented me from leaving the house. Less than two months after that, I filed a protective order with the police because he punched in the glass on our front door while I was locked inside.”
On Tuesday, the Daily Mail published an article linking to the blog post, which Willoughby confirmed to the British tabloid was written about her marriage to Porter. Willoughby and Porter’s marriage ended in 2013.
Before this report detailing Holderness’s account of her marriage, the White House offered broad support for Porter in the Daily Mail article. Porter told the tabloid, “I will not comment about these matters, beyond stating that many of these allegations are slanderous and simply false.”
Kelly praised him to the Daily Mail. “Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him,” Kelly said. “He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional.”
Sanders, the White House spokesperson, offered equally effusive praise in his defense. “I have worked directly with Rob Porter nearly every day for the last year and the person I know is someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character,” Sanders told the Daily Mail.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, one of Porter’s previous employers, told the Daily Mail that the allegations against Porter came from “character assassins.”
“It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man,” Hatch said. “Shame on any publication that would print this — and shame on the politically motivated, morally bankrupt character assassins that would attempt to sully a man’s good name.”
Colbie Holderness, whose maiden name is Paulson, met Porter when she was a freshman at Wellesley College. At the time, Porter was a student at Harvard University, where he served as a leader with the Harvard Republican Club and Harvard Students for Bush, according to Harvard Magazine. Porter had gone on a Mormon mission before returning and meeting Holderness. The relationship made a brief appearance in a 2001 Rolling Stone article about Wellesley, a women’s school.
“Of course, Romantic life depends largely on the individual,” said the Rolling Stone article. “For junior Colbie Paulson, a Mormon and the president of the Wellesley Alliance for Life, a pro-life group, Wellesley’s single-sex environment means taking a step back in time. ‘For me, I find that the fact that our school is single-sex makes it more of a traditional dating experience. The guy comes to my school, he comes to my door, he picks me up, he takes me out, he makes a real effort to get here. So for me, it just reinforces my conservative upbringing.’”
The couple wed two weeks after graduation, following three years of dating. The marriage went bad quickly, she said. On their honeymoon on the Canary Islands, they were standing face to face, arguing, and he kicked her, Holderness said. She was stunned, and also puzzled.
“I don’t know why I remember this so vividly. Many of the physical incidents blend together, but I remember this one so clearly. My mother used to always say about my father that if he ever hit her, she was gone, she was out the door,” said Holderness. “Her saying that flew through my mind when that first happened.” She recalled her reasoning for staying with Porter: “What am I to do? I just married this man. It’s not as if he punched me in the face.”
In her blog post, Willoughby, the second wife, noted that Porter had kicked his first wife on their honeymoon. Holderness confirmed she had told Willoughby about the incident.
While Porter was at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, Holderness landed a job with the governor of Idaho, her home state, which she said she taken partly to escape Porter’s abuse and further her own political career. She became friends with Trish Stack, who worked with her in the office in 2004 and 2005 and is now a marketing executive in Boise. Holderness confided in Stack about the abuse, telling her how it began on their honeymoon.
Holderness was eventually accepted to the Kennedy School and moved there with Porter in 2005. Stack said Holderness continued to confide in her. “She was trying to get help, and nobody would help her,” Stack said.
Spencer Paulson, Holderness’s brother, roomed with Porter’s younger brother at Harvard for three years. He was interning on a sheep ranch in Idaho in the summer of 2006, he said, when Holderness abruptly flew out to see him. She told him about the honeymoon and the incident in Florence, and showed him the photos. They discussed filing a police report but decided it wouldn’t do any good. “I encouraged her to separate,” he said, but the pull of the institution of marriage was still strong, and other considerations loomed. “There’s just a very warping effect when you think you can’t say things for career reasons, and that’s very sad, but it’s true.”
“I was too afraid to call the police during the entirety of our marriage.”
Holderness, who now works for the Government Accountability Office in Washington, explained that she ended up not going to the police out of fear. “I was too bewildered by the whole thing,” she told The Intercept. “Plus, I was too afraid to call the police during the entirety of our marriage, thinking they would consider the whole thing ridiculous and wouldn’t take me seriously.” She added, “Believe me, not calling the police is something I regret.”
One summer, when she was interning at a federal agency, she had access to a counselor through her job. “When I explained to him what was happening, he had a very different reaction from the Mormon bishops,” she said. “It was weirdly validating to hear that from somebody else.” Speaking about the counselor, she said, “He was very concerned to hear Rob was choking me.”
The counselor had helped her see the situation more clearly. She said, “Rob was constantly blaming me for every problem in my marriage.”
Porter blamed his first wife for his abuse of his second, according to Willoughby. “In the first weeks and months, his explanation for his anger was that his first marriage had been very toxic, rooted in arguments, accusations and manipulation and he was carrying over from that relationship,” she told the Daily Mail. “He would say that he was so used to being treated this way by his ex-wife that he was projecting that on to me. That was the explanation.”
Willoughby and Porter met through the Mormon church in 2009 and married after a romance of less than six months. She said that, within two weeks of their marriage, “it was very clear Rob had a temper that was inappropriate for the trigger.”
Willoughby said the first year of their marriage was the most volatile. During a period of separation that spring, Porter showed up at her apartment and refused to leave. According to a protective order, which the Daily Mail published and Willoughby confirmed to The Intercept was authentic, “I asked him several times to leave with his things, but he did not until I picked up the phone to call our clergy member. While he was gone, I took his clothes and put them in a suitcase on the front porch. When he returned a few minutes later, he punched in the glass on the door. I called the police, afraid he would break in.”
In her blog post, Willoughby wrote, “When I tried to get help, I was counseled to consider carefully how what I said might affect his career.” She told The Intercept that she had described Porter’s anger issues to a lay official in the Mormon church. She said the official had told her to think carefully about what she said publicly about Porter’s behavior. “Keep in mind, Rob has career ambitions,” she recalled the official saying. (The press office at the Mormon church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, declined to comment for this story.)
Willoughby said the couple’s fights only once resulted in a physical attack against her. “We were yelling in each other’s faces. I disengaged and went to take a shower. Rob was not done fighting. He came to the shower and grabbed me by the shoulders and pulled me out of the shower to continue arguing,” she said. “I think he saw the look on my face, and immediately released me and apologized. But it happened and there was no coming back from it.”
After their first year of marriage, Willoughby said, things de-escalated but didn’t dramatically improve. “There was name-calling but also insidious commentary on how thin I was or how he liked a look that I didn’t have. There was arrogance about comments I would make or some knowledge I would have and condescension of how would I know that or someone must have told you that,” Willoughby said. “It was low-grade, constant.”
“Slowly, over that first year, I gave up being myself. I prioritized emotional survival.”
“I was a ghost of a person,” Willoughby said, noting her robust social life before her marriage. “That was very drastically no longer allowed to be part of my life, because the anger or the stress and argument that I would have to endure wasn’t worth it. Slowly, over that first year, I gave up being myself. I prioritized emotional survival.”
By the end of 2012, the couple had separated again and divorced the following year.
Willoughby said she has no regrets about putting up the blog post. She works as an educator and writer, speaking on issues of compassion and resilience. With that as her platform, she said, “I wrote the post because I wanted people to see that I had been through this and I did have compassion for a man that I loved who was part of that story, and that I was resilient, and I wasn’t seeing myself as a victim.”
Willoughby said Porter repeatedly asked her to take down the post, but she declined.
“For me, it is more compassionate to bring someone to awareness of weaknesses than to scapegoat or tear someone down because of weaknesses,” Willoughby said. “Rob now has awareness if he didn’t before.”
“I have the utmost respect for him professionally,” Willoughby said. “If there was to be a staff secretary in the Trump administration I hope to God it is Rob. However, being charming, intelligent, charismatic, capable at work, and able to be angry and manipulative and antagonistic at home — they’re not mutually exclusive.”
Update: February 7, 2018
This post has been updated to reflect that Porter announced his resignation Wednesday from the White House, with an undetermined effective date.