When White House staff secretary Rob Porter resigned last Wednesday, a day after domestic violence accusations against him became public, it felt like the beginning and end of yet another brief and ugly Trump era administrative flop.
Yet here we are, one week later, and the controversy surrounding Porter’s tenure is not only alive – it’s also multiplying. On Tuesday, FBI director Christopher Wray threw another wrench into the White House’s version of events, when he testified on Capitol Hill that the FBI repeatedly warned the administration about Porter, who, despite it all, was nipping at a promotion before his abrupt departure.
When asked (again), hours after Wray’s remarks, if chief of staff John Kelly was unaware of the allegations against Porter before they made headlines, press secretary Sarah Sanders ducked.
“I can only give you the best information that I have,” she said, “and that’s my understanding.”
The House Oversight Committee is planning to investigate, Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, told CNN on Wednesday.
“I would want to know from (White House counsel) Don McGahn and General Kelly and anyone else: What did you know, from whom did you hear it, to what extent did you hear it and then what actions, if any, did you take?” Gowdy said. “The chronology is not favorable from the White House.”
The Porter affair manages to be simultaneously unique and infuriatingly ordinary. What’s curious, though, is how – in the era of President Donald Trump and the amazing, shrinking news cycle – it has remained planted on center stage for the better part of eight days.
Here are three big reasons this story isn’t going away anytime soon:
1. Full system failure – and no one is taking the fall
From Trump to Kelly and the administration’s top talkers, there has been a consistent unwillingness to own up in a meaningful way to anything more than a communications flub.
Deputy press secretary Raj Shah conceded about as much on Thursday of last week, when, confronted over the White House’s initial display of support for Porter, he said, “It’s fair to say that we all could have done better over the last few hours, or last few days, in dealing with the situation.”
Vice President Mike Pence offered about the same on Wednesday morning.
“I think the White House could have handled this better,” he said, while also offering Kelly a modest vote of confidence.
As notes of contrition go, these landed on on the nebulous end of mistakes were made and did little to actually explain who screwed up, how or why. Among the questions still unanswered:
- Why communications director Hope Hicks, who was involved romantically with Porter, took a hand in drafting Kelly’s defense of him. (It read: “Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor and I can’t say enough good things about him. He is a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I am proud to serve alongside him.”)
- What Sanders was trying to accomplish when she called four reporters into a room with Porter and allowed him to issue his in-person, off-the-record account of what happened.
- How exactly Porter left. Was he “terminated”? Did he resign, or resign under pressure? Would he still be on the payroll now if not for the allegations – and the images of ex-wife Colbie Holderness’ black eye – going public?
- Was anyone in the White House concerned that, given what the FBI had turned up, Porter might be susceptible to blackmail?
- Where does Trump stand on all this? Apart from wishy-washy (to be kind) comments on Friday and a cryptic Saturday tweet, the President has been uncharacteristically shy.
That Kelly, for so long sold as the conscience of the White House and esteemed gatekeeper to Trump, might be at risk of losing his job underlines the breadth of the mess. The upheaval that would follow his ouster adds another dimension to the drama.
2. It feeds into the currents of an ongoing cultural moment
Here’s where Trump comes more clearly into focus.
There’s a mostly straight line from his election, in the wake of the “Access Hollywood” tape and a series of harassment accusations, to the birth and evolution of the #MeToo movement. His reaction to the allegations against Porter, combined with proliferating reports about the lengths to which his staff went to protect the staff secretary, creates a familiar analog.
The target of his Saturday tweet – Porter’s accusers? Steve Wynn’s? – was then and remains unclear. But there was no mistaking his message.
“Peoples lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation,” Trump said. “Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused - life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?”
On Sunday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, speaking to Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union,” seemed determined to place herself on the right side of history. But even then, her words fell flat.
“I have no reason not to believe these women,” she said, a weird bit of phrasing that felt at pains to avoid that cultural marker: I believe the women. Porter’s first wife, Holderness, made note of Conway’s language in a Washington Post op-ed published Monday, writing archly, “I actually appreciated her saying that she at least did not not believe us.”
Conway also dismissed concerns about Hope Hicks’ safety, which became an issue when Porter’s second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday she believed, “if (Porter) hasn’t already been abusive with Hope, he will be.”
“I’m sorry for any suffering that this woman has endured,” Conway said, “but in the case of Hope, I have rarely met somebody so strong with such excellent – excellent instincts and loyalty and smarts.”
The implication, which Holderness drilled down on in her Post piece, appeared to be that victims of domestic abuse were in some way lacking, that “instincts and loyalty and smarts” were a shield – one Holderness and Willoughby, by definition, lacked.
Other Republicans, from outside the White House, have struggled to answer fairly basic questions about domestic violence, further stoking the flames. Consider this riff, from Kentucky’s Sen. Rand Paul, who was asked on CBS Sunday morning to make sense of the administration’s position.
“You know it’s difficult for me to get involved and there’s other than to say that absolutely no place for domestic violence in our world. And then beyond that I will say that there is complicated things and somebody has to. I mean if you’ve ever been to family court with he said and she said, and I’m not saying that I’m denying what these women are saying. I’m just saying that these things are very, very complicated. You go to family court and you’re a family court judge, you talk about a very, very difficult job. But that being said, I don’t want to think– I don’t want anybody to believe I’m making excuses. There is no excuse for domestic violence.”
By Tuesday morning, with the White House still tied up in knots, another Republican senator, Iowa’s Joni Ernst, called on Trump to put his foot down.
“I think he needs to send a stronger message, a stronger message,” she told CNN’s John Berman. “We need to allow women and men that have been abused to come out, make sure their stories are heard and believed.”
But the message was not received, or else it was ignored, as Trump refused to comment on the matter when asked by reporters later in the day.
3. Trump’s powers of distraction are waning
Is it possible?
Whether you view Trump’s tweeting as purely chaotic or deeply strategic, there’s no argument that it has for years now successfully scrambled reporters’ eggs and gone a long way in setting and resetting public debate.
But even as he continues chattering away on social media, taking shots at “the swamp,” weighing in on the latest in congressional Russia probe excitement, hammering the “Fake News Media,” and drumming up support for his immigration and infrastructure policies, Trump has been unable to shift the narrative or put a brake on the Porter-related headlines.
It won’t last forever. As the Senate’s DACA debate heats up – well, if it heats up – more and more eyes will turn to the White House for guidance and political cover. Trump suggested Democrats didn’t want a deal in a tweet early Tuesday, but it mostly went unnoticed.
There is, for now at least, an emerging consensus that there are questions that need answering, some of them noted above, and a reckoning that requires presidential leadership, like Ernst asked for and so many others are, if not expecting, then demanding as a matter of principle.
Put it all together and what you have is something new for these always interesting times – a scandal that doesn’t involve Russia or center purely on Trump, but seems poised to dominate our attention for longer than it takes for the milk to spoil.