Media outlets vilified the Trump White House official with tabloid allegations they failed to investigate, twisting facts and suppressing exculpatory information to advance a sensational narrative that even his primary accuser has now said was misleading and unfair.
In early 2018, Rob Porter was a rising star in the political world. As White House staff secretary, he vetted all policy proposals headed to the Oval Office and spent hours each week briefing then-President Donald Trump on key issues. Following the model of his predecessors in that role — like John Podesta for Clinton and Brett Kavanaugh for Bush — he eschewed media attention and quietly occupied a powerful position behind the scenes. The Harvard-trained lawyer and Rhodes Scholar had previously served as a top aide to three prominent senators and was widely viewed as a competent and steadying influence in the West Wing.
Porter was credited with a lead role in crafting Trump’s State of the Union speech that January and had logged dozens of flights traveling the world on Air Force One. His influence grew so rapidly that he was soon given a second formal position overseeing the White House policy process and leading cabinet-level administration meetings on international trade. “He was articulate enough to be secretary of state. Intelligent enough to be a Supreme Court justice. Driven enough to be president,” The New York Times said of Porter, citing people who crossed paths with him professionally or at Harvard and Oxford.
Then in early February, after publishing gossip that he and girlfriend Hope Hicks had become “the new D.C. power couple,” the Daily Mail published a sensational story containing allegations that Porter had been abusive in his two marriages. The salacious claims circulated far beyond the online tabloid and were immediately picked up by mainstream outlets as a means to attack Trump. Cable news networks soon began wall-to-wall coverage of this latest White House scandal. Condemnation was swift and certain. The nation’s leading newspaper published a column denouncing Porter as “Donald Trump’s Kind of Guy” for allegedly mistreating women.
Porter denied the allegations but chose to resign rather than litigate the claims publicly amidst the media onslaught. “Saying anything in the middle of that feeding frenzy would have been like shouting into a hurricane hoping to change the direction of the wind,” he told me. “They had their narrative so the truth was irrelevant.” Porter’s departure, however, did little to calm the media storm. The story became a press obsession, dominating the national political news for weeks as commentators endlessly dissected every perceived development.
But a thorough, months-long investigation by The Daily Wire reveals a reality squarely at odds with the sensational coverage. Interviews with dozens of people who knew Porter and his ex-wives, along with an extensive review of public records and messages, indicate that much of what was claimed and reported at the time was demonstrably false. Admissions by his primary accuser, captured in more than eight hours of audio recordings reviewed by The Daily Wire, suggest many of the tabloid allegations were untrue, and their marriage was nothing like the media portrayal.
Even as press stories are routinely disproven by subsequent revelations, the Porter saga is remarkable in revealing the ideological blinders pushing an entire media herd toward favored narratives regardless of reality. At the height of #MeToo fervor, reporters overlooked troubling discrepancies and red flags, distorted facts, and withheld information in order to smear a White House official and assail Trump. The story vividly illustrates the perils of rushing to judgment without meaningful inquiry, the pitfalls of dispensing with due process in favor of a politicized mob, and the injustice of instant condemnation based on allegations alone.
An “Abusive” Marriage
The primary narrator of Porter’s alleged abuse was his second wife, Jennie Willoughby, whom he married while many believe he was still reeling from his divorce from his first wife. Willoughby’s claims were the most prominent in the Daily Mail’s February 2018 article. She thereafter embarked on a whirlwind media tour that included television interviews with Savannah Guthrie on The Today Show, Anderson Cooper on CNN, and Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC. She also wrote op-eds in The Washington Post and Time magazine, among others.
Willoughby claimed that during their marriage Porter had been “angry,” “oppressive,” and emotionally “abusive,” and that he called her names and insulted her during arguments. In an Instagram post the prior year, Willoughby had written that an “abusive husband” had “belittled my intelligence and destroyed my confidence.” On one occasion, she would go on to allege, Porter had pulled her out of the shower by her shoulders to continue their argument (although she said he immediately released her and apologized). She described feeling “trapped” in the marriage until their eventual divorce.
Willoughby’s claims became a catalyst for a deeply politicized portrayal of Porter. She recited the #MeToo mantra, insisting that women who allege abuse must be “believed up front.” Explicitly rejecting due process, she suggested accusers should never be “questioned and doubted.” She also took direct aim at the Oval Office, declaring that “President Trump will not diminish my truth.”
Her own statements, however, paint a starkly different picture. Throughout numerous conversations Willoughby had with Porter following the publication of the Daily Mail story, Willoughby repeatedly suggested that Porter was not an abuser. To those who only knew “the caricature” of Porter and “everything that was sensationalized in the media,” Willoughby had to explain that in reality “that is not what or who he is.”
“I absolutely take issue with anyone who says you’re an abuser,” she told him in one conversation, according to audio reviewed by The Daily Wire.
Porter says he had initially contacted Willoughby following an Easter church service two months after the Daily Mail stories and his departure from the White House, seeking to understand why she said what she did. Text messages between Porter and Willoughby reviewed by The Daily Wire show it was Willoughby who subsequently suggested discussing their marriage together in person, and who selected each of their meeting places throughout the spring and summer. After their conversations, she expressed thanks for Porter’s patience in listening. “I’m grateful for your friendship,” she texted.
There is no indication of pressure or duress in any of these interactions, which Porter says he recorded on the advice of family and friends who feared Willoughby would later misrepresent the substance of their conversations to the media.
At their first meeting, which he said took place in May 2018 at Hains Point near downtown Washington, D.C. while sharing a park bench, the two discussed the dynamics of their marriage at length. Willoughby told Porter that, although he had not been expressly critical or insulting, she sometimes felt “belittled” and “not good enough,” even knowing “it was never your intention to make me feel that way.” When Porter apologized that she had felt inadequate, Willoughby acknowledged the ways he had sincerely tried to love and support her. She also explained that a troubled family upbringing and destructive prior relationships meant that “even if you had been able to love me fully and completely, I couldn’t have received that love” and would have felt “worthless” regardless.
During a subsequent conversation he said took place in July over brunch at a restaurant in Brooklyn, Willoughby said that “at no point” had she ever been in any “mortal danger” around Porter. Throughout their conversations, she also said that she had often been “out of control” and “abusive” to Porter, including instances when, she said, “I was up screaming in your face.”
Perhaps most significantly, Willoughby said that she committed domestic violence against Porter. When he asked if she remembered getting physical with him, Willoughby responded, “Absolutely! I pushed you down the stairs in a fit of rage.” Beyond that moment of anger and aggression, which she acknowledged had left Porter with injuries, Willoughby recalled other instances when she had “been violent” and “abusive” toward him. When a clearly bewildered Porter asked her how, given this reality, he could possibly be described as abusive rather than the opposite, Willoughby responded without hesitation, “Absolutely you’re the victim of abuse.”
I asked Willoughby several questions about her relationship with Porter, including her relationship with him after the divorce, and received the following response: “Everything I did in the context of my relationship with Rob, both during and after the marriage, was done in the service of protecting myself against further manipulation and abuse.”
A Different Reality
Willoughby’s account to Porter of their marriage matches experiences and observations from people who knew the couple well. Several described her as controlling and as the clear aggressor in the relationship, recalling instances of her verbal and emotional abuse and described being impressed that Porter could remain in control of his emotions during one instance when Willoughby publicly berated her husband.
A friend of the couple, Spencer Kiggins, told me that Porter had confided in him shortly after he and Willoughby were married that she pushed him down the stairs, as well as other instances of abuse. Kiggins described Willoughby’s media claims many years later as the opposite of what he knew firsthand of their short-lived relationship. “Throughout the marriage,” he said, “Jennie abused Rob. She was the abuser. Rob was on the receiving end.”
Porter declined to discuss details of this alleged abuse with me, but when pressed about the divergence between her public claims and private admissions, he was unequivocal. “Things could not have been more different from how they were portrayed in the press,” he said.
Willoughby also acknowledged during one conversation that she and Porter had the sort of divorce that “everybody hopes for” and were “able to apologize to each other and be friends.” The last text Porter had received from her just weeks before the Daily Mail stories was a screenshot of an Axios news item suggesting that major companies were seeking to poach him from the West Wing, accompanied by a friendly inquiry about his plans.
So, Porter says he was blindsided by the media claims that turned his world upside down. “It was excruciating to be vilified for horrible things that weren’t true,” he told me, “to read or watch the news and see a caricature that didn’t even resemble reality.”
Media outlets relied heavily on Willoughby in virtually every aspect of their politicized coverage about Porter — from sensational accounts of his marriages to speculation about his security clearance. Yet issues with her credibility should have been apparent with even cursory vetting.
Willoughby’s claim that she had divorced Porter because of the alleged abuse was demonstrably false. Virginia court records show that it was Porter who filed for divorce from Willoughby, and the proceedings contain no mention of abuse of any kind. Amidst the onslaught of coverage, however, not a single outlet seems to have examined or reported on the publicly available divorce records.
A routine review of Willoughby’s public blog and social media accounts should have also cast grave doubt on her claims about Porter. In numerous posts, Willoughby had bragged about repeatedly lying and deceiving others. On her blog, started nearly three years after their 2013 divorce in order to share her life story and give accounts of her failed relationships, Willoughby does not appear to have written anything negative about Porter. She did, however, confess to being the perpetrator of significant domestic violence. In one detailed entry, she described “pushing my lover down the stairs in a rage” as one of several “detestable” moments from her recent past.
Long before Willoughby made the accusations against Porter, she made numerous allegations about others in writings, including family members and prior boyfriends. Friends also recall her telling stories about previous boyfriends that were strikingly similar to what she later claimed about Porter. As one acquaintance put it, “she’s a serial accuser and a perpetual victim.”
In August 2020, two years after the Daily Mail allegations about Porter, Willoughby specifically said on social media that she had lied in the past about her “experiences” and “relationships,” explaining that “whatever lie would make me sound more important than I felt, that was the lie I told.”
Willoughby’s April 2017 Instagram post, headlined “I stayed with my abusive husband,” was part of a “100 Days of Secrets” project on social media. Media outlets seized on the post as somehow corroborating her claims about Porter in the Daily Mail nine months later. None mentioned its context as Day 21 of Willoughby’s project, nestled amidst other dramatic “confessions” like “I clean my house in the nude” (Day 6), “I still cyber-stalk him” (Day 25), “I’m so much cooler online” (Day 46), “The sky makes me cry” (Day 85), and “I am crazy” (Day 97).
Beyond demonstrating Willoughby’s flair for the dramatic in her posts, many of these Instagram “secrets” were obviously not meant to be taken literally, like the claim that she consciously willed her body not to succumb to the physical effects of a cocaine overdose. She often acknowledged that the sensational posts were not strictly true or had a “behind the scenes truth” at odds with the headline claim. She took creative liberties in her accounts, later admitting that her story about cyber-stalking an ex was actually “an amalgamation of at least two men.”
Rather than scrutinize the dubious post, many media commentators accepted it as credible and further sensationalized the claims. Lawrence O’Donnell devoted an entire primetime MSNBC segment to having Willoughby perform a dramatic reading of the Instagram post on air, using it to denounce Porter and disparage Trump. After Willoughby told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Porter had asked her to make clear the post did not accurately depict the marriage, Cooper said that the White House press secretary was “gaslighting” the public by denying “reality.”
Reached for comment, Willoughby acknowledged to me in an email that media outlets politicized her story.
“Media and reporters took a story of known and reported domestic abuse and made it about dysfunction and incompetence in the Trump White House, rather than about how powerful men’s accomplishments are valued over women’s safety,” she said.
In recorded conversations throughout the spring and summer of 2018, Willoughby acknowledged repeatedly that her marriage to Porter was not actually the way she had described it in writing or publicly. She indicated that aspects of her Instagram “secret” about an “abusive husband” weren’t true. Of her claim (corresponding to the accompanying photo) that she and Porter bought a house together to “make up” for his supposed “abuse,” Willoughby said bluntly, “That wasn’t true.”
Outside of the spotlight, Willoughby offered a potentially revealing explanation for her claims. Her statements weren’t an effort to tear Porter down personally (she had, after all, told the press he deserved to work at the White House and insisted that “his integrity and ability to do his job is impeccable”). Nor was portraying herself as a “victim” meant to imply anything negative about Porter’s character. Instead, she said, it was an attempt to inspire others. “It’s not about you, Rob,” she emphasized in one of their conversations. “It’s not even about our fucking marriage.” Instead, her message was intended to resonate with “people who have been in abusive relationships” and need help. “I’m not talking about you,” she insisted.
Willoughby declined to clarify her comments to me. When asked whether she told Porter “that the accusations weren’t about him, but made for people who have been through this kind of abuse,” she responded, “My hope was to give others permission to talk about their own situations.”
A “Restraining Order” And Exculpatory Admissions
Reporters not only failed to adequately vet Willoughby’s allegations before broadcasting them to a national audience; they also affirmatively distorted or withheld facts to advance a desired storyline.
Many outlets rushed to report that Willoughby had obtained a “restraining order” after Porter came to their home in June 2010 while the couple was informally separated, presenting this as evidence lending credibility to her otherwise uncorroborated claims. In truth, however, there was no restraining order or any similar determination relating to the single incident that took place during their nearly two-year separation.
Police who were called to their Northern Virginia home determined that Porter and Willoughby “had been involved in a verbal dispute only.” She later claimed that in trying to enter their house to collect his remaining belongings, Porter had punched through a glass pane on the door, “causing his knuckles to bleed.” But the incident report specifically notes that “no physical injuries were documented.” Likewise, although Virginia law requires an arrest after any domestic disturbance call if police determine either party was the “primary aggressor,” no arrest was made.
The police report indicates nothing threatening took place that would warrant seeking a restraining order. Instead, the incident was followed by a 72-hour emergency protective order (EPO), as is routine in Virginia after domestic disturbance calls. Unlike restraining orders, which are issued by a judge and based on meaningful evidence presented at a hearing, EPOs are simply granted after an individual’s request. They are “given out like candy” as a prophylactic, according to Jonathan Phillips, a former Northern Virginia prosecutor who supervised countless such orders in the area.
In fact, because EPOs are so easy to obtain, Virginia Code §19.2-152.8 [F] specifically mandates that their issuance “shall not be considered evidence of any wrongdoing.” Of course, this didn’t stop dozens of outlets from presenting it as exactly that, using the incident to suggest — falsely — that Porter had a record or history of abuse. The Washington Post even published a letter to the editor specifically claiming that Willoughby “was awarded a restraining order” after “a due-process proceeding in court,” while Politico suggested the order somehow confirmed wrongdoing and prevented Porter from obtaining a security clearance — mischaracterizations that misled readers.
“So much of the press reporting turned out to be completely wrong,” said Michael Volkov, an attorney who exhaustively researched the case for a congressional inquiry that never came. “The media narrative was based on unfounded assertions and assumptions that are contradicted by the actual facts.”
According to Willoughby, reporters also withheld exculpatory information and instead painted what they had reason to believe was a false portrait of Porter and the marriage. During one of their recorded conversations, Willoughby said she told interviewers that “I was up screaming in your face, because I was.” She also said she told the media about committing domestic violence against Porter. “I did tell a reporter that I pushed you down the stairs,” she said, but “of course” none of that made it into the published stories because “it didn’t fit their narrative” and was “the type of thing they didn’t want to hear.”
Even Willoughby came to see the media frenzy as entirely political. “People wanted to hate you because they hate Trump,” she told Porter, noting that in all her interactions “every reporter was out to get you and the White House.” Willoughby repeatedly said that the press was “mischaracterizing things” until the sensational narrative “becomes something that’s ridiculous.” She suggested that reporters were “trying to make headlines and trying to ride the coattails of #MeToo and make this something that it wasn’t.” Throughout their conversations, she emphasized that the “demonization” of Porter in media stories was “wrong,” “not right,” and “hurtful.”
Although Willoughby later spoke about the disconnect between media narratives about Porter and the truth, she actively embraced the press attention and immediately tried to monetize the initial press attention, identifying herself as a “public figure” on social media and transforming her personal blog into a commercial website that encourages visitors to book her for paid speeches and trainings. In the years since, she has actively used her accusations and press interviews about Porter to advertise her services as a “keynote” speaker discussing Cancel Culture and forgiveness.
When Porter wrote an op-ed on trade policy in The Wall Street Journal in March 2019, more than a year after leaving the White House, Willoughby penned another missive in The Washington Post, claiming he hadn’t adequately addressed her accusations and insisting he should be professionally canceled until he did. The day following her op-ed, Willoughby appeared twice on CNN to criticize Porter and used the renewed media attention to advertise an event she had organized in New York that weekend, charging attendees $50 each to hear about her “resilience” after the “abuse” she had publicly alleged.
Willoughby has publicly said that she did not want to end up building “a name for myself on the destruction of someone else” but told a television interviewer a year after the scandal, “I do not have regrets” because it “allowed me to grow professionally.” She also told me that the Daily Mail approached her, not the other way around.
The Race to Judgment
While Porter’s short-lived relationship with Jennie Willoughby was troubled from the start, his first marriage to Colbie Holderness seemed destined in the stars. People who knew the couple during their courtship in college describe them both as smart, ambitious, and traditional.
But even before the wedding, a dynamic that would plague the relationship had already surfaced, according to friends of the couple. “They both really did seem to love each other,” said Frank Petty, a close friend of Porter and Holderness since college, “but there was an odd competitiveness between them.” When Porter won a Rhodes Scholarship in his senior year at Harvard, for example, friends said Holderness postponed their wedding, scheduled for that summer, to spend an extra year at Wellesley College in the hopes of securing a prestigious fellowship for herself.
The couple eventually married the following summer in Oxford, England, where Porter was a graduate student — he was 25, she was 23. Yet, friends said, they only lived together a few short months. “Colbie was very disappointed that she didn’t get a fellowship to study in England,” recalled Elizabeth Dionne, a friend at the time. Holderness soon returned to her home state of Idaho to work in the governor’s office. Porter remained in England to finish his graduate studies, so their first two years of married life — like the final year of their engagement — were mostly spent on separate continents.
The couple reunited at Harvard in 2005 — Porter for law school and Holderness for a master’s program in government — and lived on campus with his parents, who had recently become faculty deans at one of the university’s residential colleges. The pair formally separated the following year and finalized a divorce in 2008.
A decade later in February 2018, after meeting with Willoughby, Holderness suggested to the Daily Mail that Porter had been emotionally “abusive,” claiming that his “degrading tirades” had “chipped away at my independence and sense of self-worth,” and blaming him for her academic struggles in graduate school. She also accused Porter of physical abuse, including a time on vacation together in Italy in 2005 when, she said, they were arguing and he punched her in the face. Holderness shared photos of a black eye she said resulted from the incident, and the the Intercept reported that she had taken the photos and secretly emailed them to herself to create a record of the abuse.
The images of Holderness with a bruised eye, which circulated widely on social media, made the front page of national newspapers and were featured on countless network and cable broadcasts throughout the following days and weeks. Typically used in news reports as evidence of her claims, the photos were used by commentators to assert Porter’s guilt without further inquiry. Those who suggested otherwise or favored due process before racing to conclusions were criticized and mocked.
A Different Story
But problems with the photos and Holderness’s story emerged almost immediately. Internet sleuths quickly determined from the angles and distances that she could not have taken many of the pictures of herself in 2005 before the advent of smartphones and selfie-sticks. (The original claim still remains in the Intercept piece.) Holderness later admitted that the initial claim in the Intercept was not true and that it was actually Porter who had taken the photos.
Most of the media ignored or excused the discrepancy, but Holderness’s claim that she surreptitiously photographed herself in order to document alleged abuse went to the heart of her story about the black eye and the marriage. The fact that Porter took the photos begs the question: would an abuser take photos of their abuse and give them to their victims to potentially use as leverage?
Several of the couple’s friends told me that Holderness never described her black eye — either at the time of the incident or as the couple was divorcing — as having resulted from a punch or anything intentional from Porter.
Nor, it seems, did Holderness make any such claims about the incident or the marriage when interviewed by the FBI during a background investigation for Porter’s first security clearance in 2008, a few months after their divorce. While a law clerk on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles sensitive national security matters, Porter was vetted for a top-secret clearance. According to an official at the court with access to Porter’s background file, no issues were raised during the FBI’s interviews and investigation.
“Whatever she said then, under penalty of perjury, was evidently very different than what she told the tabloids years later,” said Mark Zaid, a widely cited security clearance expert who represents Porter.
Even Jennie Willoughby, in recorded conversations, expressed doubt about the truthfulness of Holderness’s public claims. “I’m sure you didn’t reel up and punch her in the face,” she told Porter, convinced that any physical contact from him would have been unintentional. But the way it was described in the press, she said, “makes it sound like you were angry and violent.” Willoughby wondered aloud whether “the media characterized it that way more so than she did,” saying that reporters “definitely did that” with her own claims.
The day of the initial stories, Porter denied Holderness’ allegations and said of the photos that he had taken that “the reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described.” He did not elaborate further in that moment, convinced that the truth would be ridiculed amid the politicized feeding frenzy. But he shared with me a detailed account of what he said happened on that fateful trip to Italy.
Following a morning of sightseeing in Florence, Porter said, the couple had returned to their hotel room after encountering long lines at the Uffizi Gallery. Holderness was understandably upset that he had wanted to stop at several other landmarks on their way to the museum, a departure from her carefully planned itinerary that ultimately marred their day. Her irritation grew when she saw in their hotel room the souvenir they had purchased the previous day, an expensive piece of decorative Murano glass that he had wanted despite her ambivalence.
In a moment of frustration, Porter said, Holderness tore open the packaging and threatened to throw and shatter the glass. He recalls rushing from an armchair in the corner of the hotel room to the edge of the bed where Holderness was sitting. As he reached over her right shoulder and grabbed the glass out of her hands, the back of his left wrist – and perhaps his wristwatch — hit her face. “It was unintentional, but I was responsible,” Porter told me. “I never should have engaged when something like that could have happened. I should have just let her throw it.”
Porter said that they were both shocked and contrite, each expressing regret for having allowed things to escalate to such a point. As Holderness later told CNN, “I think it shocked him and it shocked me. It never happened again, it was a one-time thing.” They took photos of her eye over the next several days, Porter said, because Holderness was taking prescription Accutane and receiving a variety of skincare treatments, so they wanted to document the progression of the bruise for her dermatologist.
Porter said it never crossed his mind that the pictures he took would be used more than a decade later to claim abuse. Holderness had always acknowledged the mutual struggle and never suggested perceiving it as anything other than accidental, he told me. That was true at the time it happened, throughout the next several years they were married, as they went through a divorce, and in every subsequent conversation, he said. “She even joked about not buying Murano glass when we were planning another trip to Italy,” Porter said.
“The first time I ever heard it described differently was in a tabloid story 15 years later,” Porter told me. “I couldn’t believe what I was reading — it was like an out-of-body experience.”
Claims About Marriage and Divorce
Some of what Holderness claimed about their marriage clashes with the evidence. Like Willoughby, media outlets reported that Holderness had divorced Porter because of alleged abuse. Massachusetts divorce records, however, show that Porter and Holderness filed jointly and that the split was both mutual and amicable. There was no suggestion at any point throughout the proceedings of any sort of abuse. The divorce was granted in June 2008 on the standard basis of an “irretrievable breakdown” and after a statutory period of separation.
Several people who interacted with the couple at the time say the split had nothing to do with any intimations of abuse. They said that after a traditional Mormon courtship that included much discussion of starting a family, Holderness had later left her faith and decided she no longer wanted children, choosing instead to focus on her career. Porter was devastated, several friends told me, and despite their mutual love the pair saw no viable path forward.
When the two decided to part ways, Elizabeth Dionne recalls Holderness being preoccupied with how their divorce might affect her stake in a family trust. “She asked if I could recommend attorneys to protect this trust,” Dionne said. A lawyer herself, Dionne says she discussed with Holderness the legal factors at play in a divorce settlement. “That seemed like a good time to say ‘oh by the way he hit me,’” Dionne explained, but Holderness never suggested anything of the sort. “The reason she gave for the demise of the marriage,” Dionne recalled, “was completely career oriented — she had this job she was really interested in in Idaho and Rob was headed to D.C.”
Extensive email records reviewed by The Daily Wire show that the two saw each other frequently in the months following their split and remained friendly, expressing love for one another and regret over their divorce. Holderness even asked Porter to take care of her cats when she went on vacations to Florida and Ireland, and the pair planned activities and day trips together. The pair stopped talking ahead of his marriage to Willoughby.
Many of the couple’s friends made clear that their firsthand experience of the marriage dynamic was nothing like the media portrayals. Several said that Holderness had told them of an alleged formal psychological diagnosis at the time that left her with severe mood swings. None had learned about it from Porter, they said, adding that he was always discrete about her struggles. They insisted that her public claims of an abusive marriage were incongruent with what they knew personally or witnessed contemporaneously. Friends spoke movingly of times they saw Porter seek to comfort Holderness when she was agitated or despondent.
This was one reason the pair lived with Porter’s family when they returned to Boston in 2005. “Nothing he tried seemed to be helping,” said Jason Brinton, a close friend of the couple during graduate school, “and Rob felt ill-equipped to handle it all on his own when she didn’t want any outside help.” It was a nurturing and encouraging environment that bore no resemblance to the media stories, a family member of Porter’s told me.
Porter refused to discuss Holderness’s alleged emotional struggles on the record and asked that The Daily Wire not include details that cast her in an unfavorable light. “There’s already been more than enough grief to go around,” he explained. This impulse was part of why he kept silent rather than raise such deeply personal matters when the stories were flying fast and furious. Even in the wake of her accusations, he told me, “I still care about her and want the best for her.”
Throughout our conversations, Porter conveyed love and genuine concern for Holderness, despite obvious pain and a deep sense of betrayal. He teared up on multiple occasions. “There’s a lot I regret and could have done better, especially when she was having a really hard time. And there were circumstances I certainly would have handled differently now, in my forties, than I did then, in my twenties,” he told me. “But to suggest that I was somehow abusive is just so wrong and has been unimaginably destructive.”
“Completely Uncharacteristic” Allegations
Friends, roommates, work colleagues, school classmates, and former girlfriends describe Porter as kind-hearted and even-keeled. Even outlets like CNN and Politico, which vilified him mercilessly in the context of attacking Trump, acknowledged that the allegations seemed entirely inconsistent with the “mild-mannered” person known to friends and associates. As a former Romney campaign colleague explained to the Boston Globe at the time, “I don’t know anybody who isn’t honestly and truly dumbfounded” by the claims given Porter’s character and demeanor.
In conducting scores of interviews for her 2019 book Kushner, Inc. – a sharply critical account of the Trump administration — Vicky Ward found that the stories about Porter “confounded people in Washington” because of their contrary experiences with him personally. “Everyone with whom I spoke who had worked with Porter either in the White House or in Congress,” she wrote, “thought he was one of the most thoughtful, clever, careful — and gentle — people they had dealt with.”
Dozens of people who know Porter well told me the same. Elizabeth Taylor, a friend and colleague during his time on the Senate Judiciary Committee, recalled that even in the high-stress world of politics, filled with “angry men who explode under pressure,” she “never once saw [Porter] lose his temper or even get angry.” Another female Senate colleague insisted he was “not capable of the kinds of things that were being said and described” in the stories, and recalled an incident where she reported sexual harassment to him, which he handled professionally and without revealing her name.
A close friend and former law firm colleague, Judy Gallagher, likewise described Porter as “always calm” and “never agitated,” even in the most trying situations.
Several women who have been in long-term dating relationships with Porter say the same. One who dated Porter after his divorces described him as “a consummate gentleman” and as someone who “always put me first” and “treated me with respect.” Another, who lives in California and eschews politics, said Porter was exceptionally thoughtful as well as “enthusiastic and encouraging of my personal goals and achievements.”
Ashley DePriest, an attorney and former USAID official who has dated Porter since 2019, said, “Even with pandemic lockdowns and continuing personal injustices, he’s always shown me love.”
One friend, who has known Porter for 25 years and had personally suffered domestic abuse, insisted that the “common dynamics in abusive relationships” were “nowhere to be seen” in Porter. He never attempted “to twist anyone’s arm or guilt someone,” nor did he “lose his temper or try to control others.” The media narrative was “completely uncharacteristic” of a longstanding experience with Porter, who had instead provided the victim with help and encouragement in a time of need. “If there’s anyone who should understand that Rob is not an abusive person, it would be me.”
When The Daily Wire asked Willoughby if the media characterization of Porter was fair, she responded, “The only way to get a more accurate depiction of who Rob is as a person would be if Rob had chosen to respond or to be interviewed, but he did not.”
Whatever Holderness’s motivations, most people with whom I spoke that knew her at the time described her claims as politically focused. The only thing Holderness wrote herself on the allegations, an op-ed published in The Washington Post, was largely an attack on the Trump White House, especially Kellyanne Conway and Trump, for “seeming to call into question the allegations and the #MeToo movement overall.” Friends suggested that the politicization of the story helped explain why the sensational media accounts were so dissonant with Porter’s actual character.
Holderness did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Security Clearance Misrepresentations
Perhaps the most egregious media coverage related to Porter’s security clearance status. Outlets claimed he “was denied permanent security clearance” or “does not hold a security clearance.” Columnists for The Washington Post and The New York Times, among many others, suggested he “was unfit to hold a security clearance” and “can’t qualify for a security clearance because of his personal life.”
Over the course of one CNN program, for instance, the host and several successive guests asserted repeatedly and unequivocally that Porter “didn’t get a security clearance” and “did not deserve a clearance” because of what investigators must have considered “credible accusations.”
Much of the fevered and ultimately erroneous media reporting on Porter’s clearance was predicated on a series of faulty assumptions: That Willoughby and Holderness had made the same claims to the FBI that later appeared in the Daily Mail; that investigators found the claims credible after a thorough inquiry; and that the FBI reported this conclusion to the White House, which ignored it.
In reality, Porter was cleared at the highest level throughout the entirety of his time at the White House, just as he had previously qualified for a top-secret clearance while working on national security matters as a judicial clerk following his divorce from Holderness. “Rob’s actual clearance status was basically the opposite of most press accounts,” security clearance expert Mark Zaid told me. “He had always qualified for access to highly classified information.”
Like most White House officials early in the administration, Porter held an “interim” clearance as the Personnel Security Office processed and adjudicated FBI background investigation reports for “final” clearances. Contrary to the frenzied media speculation, there doesn’t appear to have been anything disqualifying discovered during Porter’s initial background investigation. If any such information had been uncovered, his interim clearance would have been immediately revoked, as happened to at least seven other White House officials throughout 2017.
Instead, media coverage implied or asserted that Porter was working under an interim clearance because his “permanent” (five-year) clearance had been delayed by the allegations. The New York Times, for example, suggested that “a year into his job, Mr. Porter did not have the permanent security clearance that aides of his rank always have.” Porter’s formal clearance adjudication was not “delayed” any more than scores of others amidst widespread administrative backlogs, including press secretary Sarah Sanders and Don McGhan, counsel to the president. And at the time he left the White House, there was no indication he would not receive a “final” five-year clearance.
Porter was also read into Sensitive Compartmented Information (SCI) programs in the spring of 2017, which gave him special access to “codeword” information for things like covert actions and nuclear capabilities, he told me. This access is granted by the intelligence community based on additional analysis that reaches beyond even the FBI’s background investigation and an independent determination separate from the White House Personnel Security Office. Intelligence officials had concluded that Porter was trustworthy to handle the nation’s most sensitive information.
The Washington Post, like many others, suggested that Porter remained in his high-level post “months after the claims were reported to the FBI.” MSNBC insisted that these included accusations “of physical abuse and violence.” Such assertions were based largely on Willoughby’s unexamined claim that she had shared with investigators “the details of my marriage the same” as she had shared “in the interviews and articles that have come out.” She had repeatedly used the term “domestic violence” in media appearances and even claimed to CNN that Porter’s clearance was partly delayed because of “concerns that he had been violent.”
Yet in reality, Willoughby had said nothing about “violence” to investigators, she told Porter. “I would never have used that word,” she said to Porter, though perhaps she had described him as “angry” since that was the “thing that I experienced” and would have “talked about with the FBI.” Specifically, Willoughby said, she did not suggest to investigators that Porter had ever been physically abusive. Porter never raised the issue of his security clearance in any of their recorded conversations throughout 2018, but on several occasions Willoughby volunteered that she “tried really hard when speaking with the FBI to make sure they understood how confident I was in you” and “that I thought you should be in that job.”
There is also reason to doubt that Holderness told the FBI much of what later appeared in the Daily Mail. Investigators asked Porter about challenges in the marriage generally, including her psychological diagnosis, but they never suggested that Holderness claimed she had been intentionally hit or that he had been physically abusive, he told me. It would be “extremely unusual” for investigators not to “confront the subject with that information” if such a claim had been made, said Sean Bigley, a former background investigator who is now a lawyer specializing in clearance cases. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who had access to Porter’s background file, described Holderness’s February 2018 Daily Mail claims as “new allegations” that had not been made previously.
Official records reviewed by The Daily Wire also show that all aspects of Porter’s background investigation were “favorable” and no serious concerns were raised. “Investigators take inconsistent statements seriously,” Bigley said, because such discrepancies “raise significant doubts about credibility and veracity.” Ultimately, the investigation produced no findings that warranted revoking Porter’s clearance.
Accusations from ex-spouses are also “not uncommon,” according to a former high-ranking Department of Justice official, and are usually “taken with a grain of salt,” especially if they were not made during the divorce.
This reality did nothing to slow the tsunami of media speculation. Countless outlets and commentators insisted that the White House knew about Porter’s supposed record and “history” of abuse but had “scrambled to protect him” because he was “deemed too valuable.” One even suggested cynically that the allegations had been a “resume enhancer” for the “Team Trump men’s club.”
In reality, Porter “had an exemplary record,” according to attorney Michael Volkov, having served with distinction in numerous leadership positions and held high-level clearances. He had never previously been the subject of any adverse claims in any context. When the National Background Investigations Bureau did a records check of multiple law enforcement databases in early 2017 after he accepted a job at the White House, it reported that “all data pertaining to this investigation was favorable” and that there were “no issues” in Porter’s background.
More than four years since the media frenzy and the upheaval it brought in his life, Porter seems mostly focused on the future. He brushed aside questions of how he might turn the tables on those in the press and elsewhere who knowingly demonized him. “I guess some people feel better about themselves by trying to tear other people down. That’s just not me.” Instead, he took great care in sharing his story not to criticize or demean others, even insisting that I not include names or details he thought would be too hurtful, however much it might have helped his public image. There is no talk of revenge or getting even. “I’d just like people to know the truth.”