When Jennifer Willoughby and Colbie Holderness stepped forward to tell the story of how they were physically, verbally and emotionally abused by their ex-husband, who had since become a top White House aide, President Donald Trump had nothing but good things to say about the man they had accused of domestic violence.
Rob Porter “did a great job while he was at the White House. And we hope he has a wonderful career,” Trump said Friday, adding that the aide had vehemently maintained his innocence.
The president followed that up Saturday with a tweet that “lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.”
Porter’s resignation was announced Wednesday, just hours after a photograph was published of Holderness with a black eye, allegedly inflicted by Porter. Trump’s staff secretary called the allegations from his former spouses “outrageous” and “simply false.”
Trump’s chief of staff, John Kelly, had defended Porter on Tuesday as “a man of true integrity and honor” and “a friend, confidante and trusted professional.” By some accounts, White House counsel Don McGahn had been apprised of some accusations about Porter at least four times, including as early as January 2017.
The White House response serves as a high-profile illustration of the obstacles many women face in speaking out about their abuse. First and foremost: Will anyone believe them?
“It so clearly illustrates that even today, in 2018, a lot of people react to these sorts of allegations by assuming that the woman is lying, or by indicating that, in essence, how a man behaves with women is nobody’s business, that it’s irrelevant,” said Emily Martin, National Women’s Law Center general counsel and vice president for education and workplace justice. “It suggests that what we really need to worry about is how these allegations will impact the man who is accused.”
Months before Willoughby spoke to reporters and identified Porter by name, she published a blog post explaining the fear and anxiety she felt about leaving her marriage and going public about the abuse she said she had suffered at the hands of a powerful man who was well-liked and well-respected.
“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,” she wrote. “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.”
In an interview on CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360,” Willoughby said she’s often asked why she stayed in a relationship with Porter if he was a “monster.”
“The reality is he’s not a monster,” she said. “He is an intelligent, kind, chivalrous, caring, professional man. And he is deeply troubled and angry and violent. I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive.”
Martin said victims of domestic violence and abuse often hesitate to come forward or to leave their relationships, no matter how toxic, because they worry nobody will believe their accounts, particularly when the balance of power between the abuser and the victim is uneven.
“That dynamic leaves many simply unwilling to consider the possibility that he has engaged in acts of violence, and when people aren’t willing to imagine that, the easiest thing to do is disbelieve the woman making these allegations,” Martin said.
Both Holderness and Willoughby spoke of how Porter’s abuse shattered their confidence and manipulated their emotions, making the women feel powerless. In an interview with NBC, Willoughby said she didn’t even realize she was in an abusive relationship until she had been suffering for a year.
Jessica Corbett is the wife of David Sorensen, who on Friday resigned as a White House speechwriter amid allegations that he physically and emotionally abused her. She wrote in a blog post that she was “embarrassed to tell anyone because I thought that this wasn’t something that happened to women like me; it didn’t happen in my social circles.”
“It’s lonely enough being a victim of abuse,” she wrote. “It’s even worse when the victim is made to stand alone.”
Sorensen has denied the allegations.
Debby Tucker, president of the board of directors for the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence, said women are far more likely to be accused of fabricating stories than men. Such long-standing social biases play into victims’ reluctance to share their stories.
“The societal belief system supports the idea that women are vindictive, spiteful, and lie for advantage in custody and other matters,” she said.
In the days since Willoughby’s story became public, comments on social media from abuse survivors tell stories of being afraid to come forward — and not being believed when they do.
Vice President Mike Pence, striking a markedly different tone than Trump, said in an interview Friday on MSNBC that “there’s no tolerance in this White House and no place in America for domestic abuse.”
But this is not the first time the White House has found itself in the middle of the #MeToo moment.
Trump, who was recorded on tape prior to his presidency boasting about sexually assaulting women, has denied allegations of sexual misconduct from more than a dozen women, and said he was the victim of a “smear campaign.”
Apart from disbelief, the White House also has showed ambivalence about allegations of mistreatment of women: Steve Bannon was brought on as Trump’s chief strategist despite misdemeanor charges in a 1996 domestic violence case. After Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was arrested and charged with assaulting a female reporter, Trump asked, “How do you know the bruises weren’t there before?”