How White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter’s employment in the Executive Office of the President (EOP) has been handled tells us two different, but important things. The first has to do with his front line supervisor, Gen (ret) Kelly, the President’s Chief of Staff. The second has to do with the degradation of national security norms under the current administration.
Because of the reporting, we now know that Chief of Staff Kelly has known for months that Porter couldn’t get a clearance because of what his ex-wives told the clearance background investigators about his physical abuse of them. As such Porter was doing his job with an interim clearance.
By early fall, it was widely known among Trump’s top aides — including chief of staff John Kelly — both that Porter was facing troubles in obtaining the clearance and that his ex-wives claimed he had abused them. No action was taken to remove him from the staff.
Instead, Kelly and others oversaw an elevation in Porter’s standing. He was one of a handful of aides who helped draft last week’s State of the Union address. He traveled instead of Kelly to the World Economic Forum in Davos last month. And he was one of a select group of aides who shook Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hand during a state visit to Beijing in November.
Subsequent reporting demonstrates that Chief of Staff Kelly’s response to these allegations, and his subordinate’s failure to qualify for a clearance, was even worse.
Porter said on Tuesday that he would resign, after the allegations were first published, 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, according to these people, with Kelly saying he believed Porter’s denials and saw him as a valuable ally in the White House. 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 photos of his ex-wife’s blackened eye appeared Wednesday morning.
If you ever wonder why or how sexual harassment, sexual assault, and/or rape is tolerated in the US military, governmental service, the private sector, education, and/or within religious denominations/congregations, Chief of Staff Kelly’s response to Porter’s reported behavior is one of the main reasons. Once presented with the actual photos showing the physical evidence of Porter having beaten one of his ex-wives, Chief of Staff Kelly still tried to keep him from resigning! Porter didn’t just have an abuse problem with his wives – it has now been reported that one of his ex-girlfriends warned White House Counsel Don McGahn. Porter didn’t just do this once. The question to be asked now is how often did Gen. (ret) Kelly also do this before – ignore reports of harassment, abuse, and/or rape when he was still in uniform and in command? It is hard to believe that he developed this course of action just to protect Porter.*
ETA at 11:05 PM EST: From the NY Times:
Mr. Kelly has previously played down accusations against someone he believed served a greater goal. He appeared as a character witness in a 2016 court-martial of a Marine colonel accused of sexually harassing two female subordinates. Mr. Kelly praised the colonel as a “superb Marine officer.”
Though in this case the Marine in question was so deeply troubled his former commander issued a military protective order against him. So it is possible that the character reference was given with full cognizance of both this colonels’ transgressions and troubles.
Contrast Chief of Staff Kelly’s response with that of a different military senior leader. LTG Caslen, the Superintendent of the US Military Academy, who is now facing questions as to why reports of sexual harassment, assault, and/or rape have increased over the past year. The answer is simple, he and his staff instituted reforms to encourage cadets to make reports. As a result the reported numbers went up.
Defense Department and West Point officials said the big jump at the Military Academy resulted from a concerted effort to encourage victims to come forward. But the dramatic and consistent increases may suggest more assaults are happening.
“I’m very encouraged by the reporting,” Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, superintendent at West Point, told the AP in an interview. “I recognize that people are not going to understand” the desire for increased reporting, he said. But, he added, “I’ve got the steel stomach to take the criticism.”
How Porter’s case has been handled by his front line supervisor is also a problem for national security. Because of what his ex-wives reported, Porter has been working on an interim clearance. This is problematic as his job is to handle the paper flow to the President. Moreover, some genius decided it was a good idea to let him sit in on National Security Council meetings. The underlying problem here is that Porter, because of the domestic abuse he perpetrated on his ex-wives and that he’d gone to great lengths to obscure from his employers (Senator Hatch, come on down!), left him open to manipulation and blackmail from anyone who wanted access to the classified material that he handled every day. This problem within the Executive Office of the President and among the President’s staff is not limited to Porter. Jared Kushner, the President’s son in law and senior advisor, still only has an interim clearance, the same as Porter, because of inconsistencies on his SF-86 and financial disclosure forms, as well as reported problematic encounters with Russian and Chinese officials and nationals during the campaign and transition. Attorney General Sessions has lied to the Senate about his meetings with and connections to Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s former ambassador to the United States, as well as neglecting to include them on his SF-86. Stephen Miller has long been associated with white supremacists and neo-NAZIs. All of these individuals activities and actions leave them susceptible to exploitation in an attempt to access classified information.
That I can even point to four examples at the highest level of the executive branch off the top of my head – three senior advisors to the President and the Attorney General of the United States – should be worrying. It shows just how little the current administration actually cares about operational security and safeguarding the Nation’s most important and sensitive information. How many more of the political appointees have similar problems? How many have we not heard about? And this isn’t just among the President’s appointees and gatekeepers. Just last week we learned that what the President disclosed to Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak was far, far more sensitive than had been previously reported.
DAVIES: So if I understand it, you know of specific information that the U.S. shared with the Russians that has not been revealed publicly and that you are not revealing publicly?
BERGMAN: The nature of the information that President Trump revealed to Foreign Minister Lavrov is of the most secretive nature. And that information could jeopardize modus operandi of Israeli intelligence.
DAVIES: And this is different from what was publicly reported at the time. There were some question about, you know, plans for, I think, laptop computers on airlines. This – you’re referring to something that we don’t yet know.
BERGMAN: Most of it, we don’t yet know. And there were conflicting reports. I cannot – in order not to be part of disclosing secret information and jeopardizing Israeli and the U.S. ability to track down terrorists and proliferate, I prefer not to go into the details of that.
The failures to take action when credible allegations of domestic abuse and of security risks should worry everyone. They clearly demonstrate multiple moral failures among the senior leaders within the current administration. Tolerating domestic abuse is unacceptable. Tolerating security risks having access to the highest level of classified information is unacceptable. Senior leaders who refuse to take their responsibilities regarding either of these issues – the moral and the operational – are unacceptable. The are unacceptable from civilian leaders. They are unacceptable from military leaders.
The final word on Rob Porter is from one of his ex-wives, Jennie Willoughby:
The first time he called me a “fucking bitch” was on our honeymoon. (I found out years later he had kicked his first wife on theirs.) 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. We bought a house to make up for it. Just after our one year anniversary, he pulled me, naked and dripping, from the shower to yell at me.
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. The terror was real. And yet I stayed.
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. And so I worked on myself and stayed. If he was a monster all the time, perhaps it would have been easier to leave. But he could be kind and sensitive. And so I stayed. He cried and apologized. And so I stayed. He offered to get help and even went to a few counseling sessions and therapy groups. And so I stayed. He belittled my intelligence and destroyed my confidence. And so I stayed. I felt ashamed and trapped. And so I stayed. Friends and clergy didn’t believe me. And so I stayed. I was pregnant. And so I stayed. I lost the pregnancy and became depressed. And so I stayed.
Abuse is indifferent to education level, socio-economic status, race, age, or gender. And no one can ever know the dynamics of another’s relationship. My cycle continued for four more years. Afterward, I let go and welcomed the hard work of healing and forgiveness. My experience made me stronger and able to love more deeply. But my heart breaks for him. In the end, who is the real victim of his choices?
* Update at 11:05 PM EST