The Trump administration’s handling of domestic abuse allegations against Rob Porter, a key staffer, shows why this scourge persists in American society.
Too often spousal abuse is treated like a trivial matter.
That was the case on Wednesday, when Porter resigned as White House staff secretary amid allegations that he physically and emotionally abused two ex-wives and a former girlfriend.
The White House should have seized on the opportunity to remind the nation that spousal abuse is an intolerable crime.
Instead, the president heaped praise on the alleged abuser.
Worse yet, Porter wasn’t forced out because these women alleged he was a serial abuser.
He was forced out because a photograph surfaced showing one of the wives with a black eye.
That photograph proved to be too much even for an administration that has been tone-deaf when it comes to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements.
Even so, President Trump lavished Porter with praise on Friday: “He worked very hard,” Trump said, and did a “very good job.”
The president never even mentioned the seriousness of the domestic violence allegations, nor Porter’s ex-wives.
It was shameful.
Instead, Trump thought it was appropriate to point out that Porter “very strongly” claimed innocence, as if someone in Porter’s situation would say otherwise.
Besides the damning photo, the second wife had filed for an emergency protective order, and the FBI had not granted Porter a full security clearance.
But these strikes weren’t enough to stop Porter from rising to the administration’s highest levels.
“For me, what I find the most deplorable is the president and other people in the White House saying [Porter] is a good man,” said Rebecca Darr, CEO of WINGS Program Inc., an advocacy organization for domestic violence survivors that operates in the greater Chicago area.
“That is what holds victims back from calling for help. You don’t turn around and say that the person who inflicted the abuse is a good person,” Darr said.
White House Counsel Don McGahn knew of the allegations for more than a year, and Chief of Staff John Kelly had known about them since last fall, according to the Washington Post.
But neither of those top government officials saw the allegations as problematic.
In fact, before the black-eye photograph became public, Kelly was emphatic in his defense of Porter, calling him a “man of true integrity.”
In a statement released after Porter resigned, Kelly said: “There is no place for domestic violence in our society,” but stood by his previous comments about Porter.
In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Porter’s second wife, Jennie Willoughby, got to the root of why it is difficult to stop domestic violence.
Willoughby said she has been asked why she stayed with Porter if he was such a monster.
Her response will sound familiar to the countless women who have survived spousal abuse.
“He is not a monster. He is an intelligent, kind, chivalrous, caring, professional man and he is deeply troubled, angry and violent,” Willoughby said in the CNN interview.
“I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive.”
About 1 in 3 women have been victims of domestic violence, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
But too many of us still think domestic violence affects mostly lower-income and working class families.
Darr pointed out that Willoughby’s friends and clergy didn’t believe her claims of abuse because Porter was so charismatic outside of the home.
“It is not much different than the Harvey Weinstein situation. You have people with powerful roles and because you are experiencing [abuse] and no one outside is seeing it, you are not believed,” Darr said.
“The biggest concern that I have and all of us who devote our lives to helping victims escape the abuse is what this does to diminish the fact that the behavior is a crime,” she said.
“The president of the United States came out and basically said it is not a big deal when it is a very big deal. I can tell you, it is so damaging to the victims. Not just to them, but to the children involved in these situations as well,” Darr pointed out.
I doubt very much that Trump would have this same level of tolerance if the allegations of domestic violence had come from his own daughters.
Need help? The Illinois Department of Human Services operates a Domestic Violence Helpline. Call 1-877-863-6338.