In January 2017, the FBI began interviewing Rob Porter’s former romantic partners, part of the standard process for granting security clearance to high-level White House aides. On the day of her scheduled interview with the FBI, Porter’s former wife Colbie Holderness said her husband was approached by a friend of Porter. “He stated that she is not obligated to speak with the FBI,” Holderness’s husband, Skiffington, wrote in a recollection of the encounter that he sent to the FBI a few days later.
Colbie Holderness told The Intercept that she understood the contact as pressure to keep quiet about how Porter physically abused her during their marriage. The encounter was one of the earliest moves by an array of powerful men who succeeded for over a year in protecting Porter from the legal and personal consequences of domestic abuse — until The Intercept and the Daily Mail interviewed his two ex-wives. After the media reports began coming out, Porter resigned.
Porter remained in his position, accumulating more and more responsibilities even as high-level officials learned about his former partners’ allegations of abuse.
Individuals with a history of beating up their romantic partners are not supposed to be allowed to obtain the top security clearance required for the job Porter was awarded. As White House staff secretary, Porter would go on to become one of the most quietly powerful men in President Donald Trump’s administration, controlling the flow of information that landed on Trump’s desk, according to media reports. Righthand man to Chief of Staff John Kelly, Rob Porter was thought of as above the fray of White House drama, a “master of discretion.”
Doing that job without proper security clearances borders on impossible, said a former senior White House official who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about an internal matter, and Porter’s temporary clearance should not have allowed him to view sensitive documents he would need to keep paper flowing. In at least one case, Porter requested documents but was refused, because he did not have clearance, according to the former White House official. The situation raises questions about whether the White House allowed Porter to handle highly classified information — Porter’s reported temporary clearance should not, for instance, have allowed him access to “top-secret” material.
At the time that Porter was denied the documents last summer, the source said, the reason for the lack of clearance — the abuse allegations — was known to White House officials.
Yet Porter remained in his position, operating on an interim clearance and accumulating more and more responsibilities even as high-level officials learned about his former partners’ allegations of abuse.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, it came crashing down. A series of articles by the Daily Mail and The Intercept revealed that Porter had punched, kicked, and choked Holderness over the course of their marriage. His second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, detailed years of verbal harassment, a physical assault, and a protective order issued after Porter refused to leave her apartment and broke a window during an initial separation.
Willoughby’s account, first published Tuesday night by the Daily Mail, was answered by a wave of statements in defense of Porter’s character from the administration, as well as an ally on Capitol Hill. It was only after a photo of Holderness’s blackened eye — the result of a blow from Porter, she said — was published by The Intercept and the Daily Mail that officials backtracked and Porter resigned.
Porter did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him with detailed inquiries by email, text message, and phone — in one instance, a man answered his phone then promptly hung up — of the claims made against him by his former partners and others.
Trump, according to sources close to the president, is incensed at Kelly over his handling of the situation. A source close to Trump, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak, said Kelly decided not to tell Trump about Porter’s clearance issues. Trump has begun floating replacements for Kelly, and specifically named Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Mick Mulvaney, head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and Office of Management and Budget, according to two well-connected sources who requested anonymity to discuss their knowledge of private conversations.
Still, on Friday, in a remarkable statement to the press about Porter, Trump said, “He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent, so you’ll have to ask him about that, but we absolutely wish him well. He did a very good job while he was at the White House.”
“It’s obviously a tough time for him,” Trump added. “It was very sad when we heard about it and certainly he’s very sad now.”
The attempts to protect Porter began in early 2017, carried out by an individual who told The Intercept he was unaware of the abuse. “I would never engage in any act that would attempt to prevent information such as this from coming to light,” said Bryan Cunningham, Porter’s friend who had approached Skiffington Holderness, in a statement to The Intercept. “I feel deeply used and betrayed by someone I thought I knew. I am disgusted by his behavior and am glad his ex-wives have had the opportunity to come forward and let the truth come out.”
Two weeks before Colbie Holderness’s FBI interview, some 10 days before Trump’s inauguration, Cunningham called Skiffington Holderness. Cunningham, a lobbyist, asked him to inform Colbie that she needed to pass her personal information — “any names she had used, her birthday, and her birthplace,” according to Holderness’s written recollection — to Porter to submit to the FBI. (Colbie Holderness said she believed Porter sent Cunningham in order to respect her wish to avoid contact with her former husband.) Skiffington Holderness recounted his encounter and two others with Cunningham in subsequent weeks in the lengthy January 31, 2017 email to the FBI. (Skiffington Holderness declined to comment for this story.)
“Colbie wanted to move past everything and her initial inclination was to not speak with the FBI. Bryan said that was good.”
On January 25, according to Skiffington Holderness’s email to the FBI, Cunningham got in touch again, insisting that he needed to speak about “a time-sensitive issue and he couldn’t sleep on it.”
Cunningham informed Skiffington Holderness that “someone was going around town trying to ‘infect’ others against Rob.” He assured Skiffington Holderness that Porter was unaware the two were speaking. ”I told him that after he and I had spoken about Rob and the White House, that Colbie wanted to move past everything and her initial inclination was to not speak with the FBI,” Skiffington Holderness wrote in his email to the FBI. “Bryan said that was good.” That’s when Cunningham, according to the email, said Colbie Holderness was under no obligation to speak with federal law enforcement officers conducting the background check.
Cunningham, according to the email, went on to speak about how he and Skiffington Holderness were good friends and “how women in this town are crazy.”
“It seemed to me that Bryan, due to his close friendship with Rob, is aware of possible background issues and is actively working to quell them,” Skiffington Holderness wrote in summary as he informed the FBI of the encounters with Cunningham.
Of course, Colbie Holderness did not stay quiet – instead, she described her abuse in detail and told the FBI she believed Porter’s history would make him easy to blackmail. She emailed the FBI images of her bruised eye taken after Porter had punched her in the face while they were on vacation in Florence, Italy, in 2005.
“I have known many of the people involved in this story for nearly a decade, both socially and professionally,” Cunningham said in his statement. “Despite that, like so many other people, I was shocked and appalled to see the news reports about the history of domestic abuse in Rob Porter’s prior marriages. To be clear, Skiffington never disclosed to me and I did not know about any of the horrible abuses Rob allegedly inflicted on his wife.”
Jennifer Willoughby, Porter’s second wife, received calls from Porter around the time she went in to talk to the FBI – something that was not unusual, since the two had remained cordial since they divorced in November 2013. Porter wanted to know what his ex-wife was going to say. “I said, ‘I’m going to tell the truth,’” she recalled in an interview with The Intercept. “I didn’t feel coached or manipulated in any way. He did, however, express that it was not going to go well for him. He said, ‘If you say it that way, it’s going to sound bad.’”
Porter also expressed concern to Willoughby about Colbie Holderness, saying he believed she had an axe to grind. “It was clear he was concerned that Colbie’s words would be detrimental to him because he thought they would be exaggerated,” Willoughby said.
“He said, ‘If you say it that way, it’s going to sound bad.’”
Shortly afterward, Willoughby detailed to the FBI how Porter had verbally abused her throughout their marriage, including the instance of physical abuse, and described the protective order. A couple months later, she detailed in an Instagram post, titled “Why I Stayed,” what she considered to be the most searing moments of their difficult marriage and later, republished it on her blog. The post didn’t name Porter, but it described how he had called her a “fucking bitch” on their honeymoon, physically prevented her from leaving her house, and pulled her out of the shower after she had attempted to disengage from a fight.
Porter contacted Willoughby shortly after she first posted on Instagram. He asked “me what my motivation was. He was angry, contesting a few points in the post, ultimately demanding that I take it down,” Willoughby recalled. “I said no.”
According to chatlogs provided by Holderness to The Intercept, a third ex-partner of Porter, who declined to comment, also felt pressured to stay quiet about Porter’s history of abuse.
By February 2017 , according to unnamed sources cited by the Washington Post and Politico, White House counsel Don McGahn was aware of the allegations. It is unclear exactly when Kelly’s office knew of the allegations. According to Politico, citing anonymous sources, Deputy White House Chief of Staff Joe Hagin knew the “broad strokes of the allegations about a year ago.” CNN reported only that Hagin was “aware of some of the claims by the fall,” also citing unnamed officials.
“I was honest with him, as I had been when I was interviewed by the FBI, because I have nothing to hide.”
In September or October, Porter reached out to Willoughby again, she told The Intercept. He told her that his security clearance had been delayed. “What did you say to the FBI? Did you use the word ‘abusive’? Did you use the word ‘violent’?” Willoughby recalled him asking her. “I was honest with him, as I had been when I was interviewed by the FBI, because I have nothing to hide. He was there. I was there. He knows what I’m going to say.”
Kelly was personally informed by winter that Porter would not be getting a permanent clearance, according to media reports, and was told that a reason was the multiple allegations of abuse.
Porter continued to operate as the ultimate insider, socializing with the president’s family and top advisers, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, as well as dating White House Communications Director Hope Hicks. He flew with Trump in his Marine One helicopter and on Air Force One, joining him on weekend trips to Mar-a-Lago to ensure that Trump was able to keep up with affairs even as he golfed. He helped draft the State of the Union address and traveled to the World Economic Forum in Davos last month.
Around two weeks ago, Willoughby got a call from Porter. He told her that the existence of her blog post had been leaked to the media and asked her again to take it down. “I was laughing because if I take it down, it’s going to be so much worse,” Willoughby said.
She assured him she would be in touch when reporters reached out, but balked when he attempted to co-write a public statement with her. His suggestion, she said, was that “I would say we divorced amicably and I have nothing but good things to say about him, which is kind of true.” But she ultimately resisted his effort to control the narrative. “The language he used implied I was going to be retracting my blog post, which I couldn’t do.”
When The Intercept and the Daily Mail called, Willoughby answered. Her detailed account of Porter’s abuse during their marriage was met by a barrage of official compliments to his character.
“Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor, and I can’t say enough good things about him,” Kelly said. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders added, “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.” And Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chimed in: “It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man. He is kind and considerate towards all.”
It was the kind of dynamic both Holderness and Willoughby had experienced during their marriages. “Everyone loved him. People commented all the time how lucky I was. Strangers complimented him to me every time we went out. But in my home, the abuse was insidious. The threats were personal,” Willoughby wrote in her blog post. “The terror was real.”
“When I tried to get help, I was counseled to consider carefully how what I said might affect his career. And so I kept my mouth shut and stayed. I was told, yes, he was deeply flawed, but then again so was I,” she wrote. “Friends and clergy didn’t believe me. And so I stayed.”
Porter resigned, and his defenders began changing their tunes, but only slowly.
Holderness decided to release images of her blackened eye so that Willoughby would not be out alone against the powerful men who were already rallying to protect Porter. As The Intercept and the Daily Mail published the images, Porter resigned, and his defenders began changing their tunes, but only slowly.
Hatch issued a new statement declaring that he was “heartbroken.” Sanders told reporters Wednesday afternoon that the White House had not pressured Porter to resign. She read aloud a statement from Porter, “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. I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign.”
Late Wednesday, Kelly issued his own new statement. “I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society,” he added, “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.”
On Thursday, CNN’s Jim Acosta pointed out to White House Deputy Press Secretary Raj Shah that Porter’s initial statement about having taken some of the photos appeared to confirm some abuse. “It’s fair to say we all could have done better over the last few days in dealing with this situation,” Shah replied. “But this was the Rob Porter that I and many others had dealt with, that Sarah had dealt with, that other officials, including the chief of staff, had dealt with, and the emerging reports were not reflective of the individual we had come to know.”
Kelly had not been “fully aware” of the allegations until press reports, Shah said. He declined to comment on just how much officials did know and when.
Update: Feb. 9, 2018
This story has been updated to include President Donald Trump’s Friday remarks about Rob Porter’s departure.