Porter functioned as Chief of Staff John Kelly’s chief enforcer in their shared mission to instill discipline and order in what had become an extraordinarily chaotic West Wing.
WASHINGTON — A senior White House official said Wednesday that he would resign after his two ex-wives accused him of physical and emotional abuse, with one presenting pictures of her blackened eye.
The official, Rob Porter, served as the staff secretary, a title that belies the role’s importance in any White House — but especially in President Donald Trump’s. Porter functioned as Chief of Staff John Kelly’s chief enforcer in their shared mission to instill discipline and order in what had become an extraordinarily chaotic West Wing. He is the gatekeeper to the Oval Office, determining which articles and policy proposals fall into the president’s hands and pre-screening the briefing materials that his visitors share with him.
Porter said he would resign when the allegations against him were first published by The Daily Mail on Tuesday, people close to him say, even as he told White House officials he had never physically abused women.
But he was talked out of it by Kelly and others, with Kelly saying he believed Porter’s denials and saw him as a valuable ally in the White House.
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Kelly continued to press him to stay in his job Wednesday, saying he could weather the storm, but Porter decided the controversy had become too much after the damaging photos of the blackened eye appeared Wednesday morning.
Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, said he was continually abusive during their marriage. She alleged he punched her in the face during a trip to Florence, Italy, in 2005 and provided photos showing her with a black eye.
“He threw me down and punched me in the face,” she said. Holderness said she had insisted that he take pictures of her bruised eye after the assault and he agreed. “He was trying to make it up to me, and I said I wanted evidence if this should happen again.”
Porter denied the accusations but said he was stepping down from his job, although it’s unclear when he will officially leave the White House.
“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,” he said in a statement. “I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign.”
Aides had been aware generally of accusations against Porter for at least several weeks, White House advisers said, but learned of the specifics late Tuesday when approached by a reporter from the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, which first detailed many of the allegations.
Porter is an ally of Kelly’s and in addition to serving as staff secretary, he oversaw and sought to streamline the White House’s policymaking process, coordinating with Cabinet members and other agency officials and leading meetings about issues ranging from immigration to trade. He played an integral role in crafting Trump’s “State of the Union” address in January.
Kelly saw in Porter a partner in professionalizing the operation. Porter is one of the few senior White House staffers with past government experience, having served as chief of staff to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Although many of his colleagues have eclectic backgrounds, Porter boasts a classic pedigree as a Harvard-educates Rhodes scholar whose father, Roger Porter, held senior positions in the Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses.
Porter was seemingly omnipresent in the Oval Office for key meetings and events, and he regularly traveled with the president — often being one of only a handful of aides to have the privilege of accompanying him on the Marine One helicopter before joining the larger staff entourage aboard Air Force One. When Trump spent weekends at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida or his Bedminster golf course in New Jersey, Porter often was along for the trip, tending to the president’s needs and briefing him on developments.
When the allegations were published Tuesday, the White House mobilized to defend Porter.
White House Communications Director Hope Hicks is dating Porter, according to people familiar with the relationship, and was involved in the White House’s defense of Porter on Tuesday evening.
“Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him,” Kelly said in a statement Tuesday night. “He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”
The White House also distributed a statement from Hatch defending Porter.
“It’s incredibly discouraging to see such a vile attack on such a decent man,” Hatch said in a statement.
After the release of the photos of Holderness’ bruised eye Wednesday, Hatch released a new statement.
“I am heartbroken by today’s allegations. In every interaction I’ve had with Rob, he has been courteous, professional, and respectful,” he said. “My staff loved him and he was a trusted advisor. I do not know the details of Rob’s personal life. Domestic violence in any form is abhorrent. I am praying for Rob and those involved.”
A White House official said Kelly stood by his statement praising Porter, even after the senior official resigned.
Asked Wednesday whether Trump had any concerns about the allegations against Porter or with the photos of Holderness, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, “I don’t know.”
Porter’s second wife, Jennie Willoughby, received a temporary emergency protective order in Arlington, Virginia, in June 2010 after saying he refused to leave her residence, in violation of their separation agreement. She said he broke her window, causing his knuckles to bleed.
Both Willoughby and Holderness said they told the FBI about Porter’s conduct and were dismayed to learn of his senior role in the White House. Willoughby provided the contact information for the FBI agent she spoke with, who declined to comment when reached Wednesday. When the FBI asked Holderness if Porter was vulnerable to blackmail, she answered affirmatively because of the number of people aware of his abusive behavior.
“I thought by sharing my story with the FBI he wouldn’t be put in that post. I’m telling the FBI this is what he’s done, and Jennie Willougbhy is telling me them what he’s done, and the White House says, sure this is OK? I was let down by that,” Holderness said.