WASHINGTON ― Domestic abuse victims often worry their experiences won't be taken as seriously if the offender is powerful or well-liked professionally.
By defending Rob Porter, the now former White House staff secretary accused of physically abusing his two ex-wives, and emphasizing that he was very good at his job, President Donald Trump and Trump's chief of staff, John Kelly, are sending victims a signal that those fears are justified. (Porter has denied the allegations.)
"To have an [alleged domestic violence] offender at the White House, what do you think that says to every cop, every advocate, every prosecutor, every victim - especially every victim who turns on the TV and sees a man who reportedly put his hands on a woman's neck, standing side-to-side with the president of the United States?" said Mark Wynn, a retired police officer who helped form the largest police domestic violence investigative unit in the United States. "It's a big deal."
White House officials were aware of the accusations against Porter for months, according to newsreports, though there are still questions about the extent to which Kelly knew. Porter was able, nonetheless, to keep his job as staff secretary until last week, when he resigned after the allegations became public. Right away, Trump and Kelly publicly leapt to Porter's defense.
That response sends a message not just to Porter's alleged victims but also to other people who are considering reporting abuse.
"Anecdotally, I think most victims don't feel like they can report, because abusers get away with the abuse," said Gretchen Shaw, associate director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "This is an example of how they do so - they are elevated, they are protected by the people that brush this issue under the rug, and put their skill and experience ahead of what sounds like incredible violence."
Lindsay Walters, a White House spokeswoman, said in an email that the administration "takes the issue of domestic violence very seriously" and that Trump's budget will be "fully funding the Violence Against Women Act." (Kelly wrote in an email to White House staff that domestic violence "has no place in our society.")
But Porter is not an isolated incident. White House speechwriter David Sorensen resigned last week following a Washington Post report about his ex-wife's claims of abuse, including that he put out a lit cigarette on her hand. Sorensen denied the allegations.
The president has also cozied up with other men who have faced serious domestic abuse claims, including his former labor secretary pick, Andrew Puzder (He "hit me in the head pushed his knee into my chest twisted my arm and dragged me on the floor," his first wife said). There was also an accusation of domestic violence against former chief strategist Steve Bannon. (Puzder and Bannon have denied the allegations.)
Former Obama administration staffers say that preventing violence against women was a priority for them.
"If the FBI had found credible evidence that an Obama White House staffer had engaged in domestic violence, that staffer would have been shown the door immediately," said Chris Lu, who served as White House Cabinet secretary during the Obama administration.
In 2012, President Barack Obamaissued a memorandum arguing that the federal government "should act as a model in responding to the effects of domestic violence on its workforce." He directed the government to issue guidance on addressing domestic violence in the federal workplace. That guidance is current, and every agency, including the White House, develops its own policies based on it, Lindsay Haake, a spokesperson for the Office of Personnel Management, said in an email.
"It's a sign that you care about an issue when you apply it to yourself," Caroline Bettinger-López, the former White House adviser on Violence Against Women in the Obama administration, told HuffPost. "Sending a message that this is not to be tolerated within the workplace, that leadership counts."
The Trump administration has not continued Bettinger-López's position, she said. Walters, the Trump White House spokeswoman, did not respond to questions about that position or the White House's employment policy on domestic violence.
This issue transcends administrations and party, said Bettinger-López, now a law professor at the University of Miami. John Michael Farren, a one-time top attorney for former President George W. Bush, was convicted of attempting to kill his wife. But, "in failing to speak out against domestic violence, Trump has turned the clock back on the progress we've made in this country on this important issue," Lu argued.
"Domestic violence offenders are very talented, they're very creative, they come in all shapes and forms, bankers, judges, soldiers, construction workers," Wynn said. But "when they're discovered by somebody responsible, why would you want to keep them where we couldn't see them? Why wouldn't somebody responsible for this person say, 'Wait a minute, you did what to two girlfriends? You can't work here. We don't want you.′
"It seems complicated. But it's really not."