Editor’s Note: Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her at @jrpsaki. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
On Wednesday afternoon, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly described staff secretary Rob Porter as someone he was “proud to serve alongside,” and White House press secretary Sarah Sanders described Porter as someone “of the highest integrity and exemplary character.”
What prompted these glowing statements about a fellow colleague? Allegations were made public of emotional and physical abuse by both of Porter’s ex-wives – including photo evidence from his first wife, Colbie Holderness.
Either Kelly and Sanders were handed written statements that they blindly read or that is actually how they feel. Either option is unacceptable.
Porter was even allowed to put out his own statement, quite an accommodation from any employer, never mind the White House, for a reported abuser. (He has denied the allegations.)
So why has the White House bent over backward to defend him?
Here are some theories that some have advanced:
They were in shock. They didn’t know how to handle such surprising allegations about a trusted colleague.
Nope. Kelly reportedly knew about these allegations back in the fall. And he allowed a man who faced allegations that he repeatedly abused his spouses to continue working in the people’s house.
These allegations are coming from sources that just aren’t credible.
No again. Both ex-wives, Jennifer Willoughby and Holderness, spoke on the record and in detail. Willoughby had filed a protective order against Porter and described her married life as “walking on eggshells” because of his anger.
And Holderness described an incident in detail from their honeymoon when he “wanted to have sex and kicked” her.
They are just defending their talented colleague.
That is just not going to fly. Who cares if Porter had multiple degrees and implemented Kelly’s paper strategy? His ex-wives say he physically and emotionally abused them.
This White House has always lived by its own set of rules, whether it comes to ethics or transparency or even policy details.
But at a time when public officials ranging from movie network bosses to morning-show hosts are being forced out of their jobs, at a time when a group of young Olympic gymnasts had the courage to send their abuser to jail, and at a time when even among elected officials, accusations of sexual harassment have become career-ending – the White House somehow isn’t held to the same standards.
Kelly issued a late-night statement in a pool report Wednesday that included the universally agreed upon statement that “There is no place for domestic violence in our society” – before quickly returning to a defense of Porter by reiterating that he stands by his “previous comments of the Rob Porter” that he had “come to know since becoming Chief of Staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation.”
The White House has a lot more explaining to do.
Do they not believe the women?
What about the photos? If it wasn’t Porter, then who was it?
Even if Kelly came around to accepting Porter’s resignation, why is he still working there?
Why didn’t Kelly fire him when he reportedly learned of the abuse allegations in the fall?
Right now the defense is not worse than Porter’s actions, but it sure does feel indefensible.