WASHINGTON — A female White House staffer told Yahoo News she was not shocked to see members of the Trump administration defend a top aide after multiple domestic abuse allegations were made against him.
“It’s not a surprise. There’s a real problem with the boys’ club here. There just is,” the staffer said Friday.
Former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned Wednesday, has denied the accusations.
The White House expressed support for Porter on Tuesday evening after his second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, gave an interview to the Daily Mail describing alleged physical and verbal abuse she suffered during their marriage, which lasted from 2009 to 2013. Chief of staff John Kelly and press secretary Sarah Sanders gave statements to the paper describing Porter as a “man of true integrity and honor” and “someone of the highest integrity and exemplary character.”
On Wednesday, Porter’s first wife, Colbie Holderness, came forward with her own claims of abuse and an accompanying photo showing a black eye that she said Porter gave her during a 2005 vacation in Italy. That same day, Sanders announced Porter’s resignation from the White House podium, but said he would stay on to “ensure a smooth transition.” Kelly issued a statement as well, declaring that he “was shocked by the new allegations released today” and adding that “there is no place for domestic violence in our society.”
But those first statements of support for Porter and the fact that he wasn’t immediately dismissed led to an intense backlash. There are also questions about when top officials first learned of the allegations against Porter, since his wives said they informed the FBI during his background check process. Porter, whose position made him a key Oval Office gatekeeper who regularly handled classified information, was never granted a security clearance. On Thursday, principal deputy press secretary Raj Shah said Porter had left the White House and conceded, “We all could have done better over the few hours or last few days in dealing with this situation.” Shah declined to answer questions about when Kelly and others learned of the abuse accusations.
The staffer who spoke to Yahoo News said women in the White House were frustrated by the initial defense of Porter and the fact he was allowed to continue working after the claims surfaced. The staffer said they blamed it on a male-dominated atmosphere in the West Wing.
“The boys’ club mentality here is just ridiculous. … It’s everywhere,” the White House staffer said.
Asked to described the issue further, the staffer said women’s viewpoints are not respected in the White House. She acknowledged there are women in top roles including Sanders, communications director Hope Hicks and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, but she said the men on staff don’t take their female co-workers seriously.
“Obviously, there’s Kellyanne, Sarah, and Hope — those are all pretty big positions, … but there’s a constant feeling anyway of being just minimized,” the staffer said, adding, “Like if you have an idea it’s just like, ‘Ha-ha-ha that’s nice.'”
Sanders disputed this account and told Yahoo News she has “never felt minimized” at the White House.
“I think if you talk to other women in the White House you would find the same response,” Sanders said.
Sanders specifically cited Conway, Hicks, deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters, deputy director of communications Jessica Ditto, and director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp as women in the White House who would counter the “boys’ club” claim.
“That is not my experience,” Ditto told Yahoo News on Friday evening. “I have never felt minimized for my gender while serving in this White House. We treat each other with mutual respect and work hard every day in service to the President and this Nation.”
Conway, Hicks, Walters and Schlapp did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
A female adviser from Trump’s campaign echoed the idea there was a “boys’ club” surrounding his White House bid. She suggested this likely contributed to the White House’s decision to defend Porter even amid an intense national conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace.
But the ex-adviser, who requested anonymity due to the nondisclosure agreement staffers were made to sign on the Trump campaign, said Trump was not personally to blame for the situation.
“There was definitely a boys’ club atmosphere at headquarters. I don’t think the boys’ club was set by Mr. Trump at all. I think he personally is probably pretty good about female voices and wanting female voices to be part of the conversation, but I think there was a general atmosphere that was hostile and was a boys’ club at Trump Tower,” the former adviser said.
Asked who was responsible for this, the former adviser would only say it was multiple people at top levels of the campaign. She declined to describe specific incidents, saying they would identify her.
“Senior level male employees set the wrong tone and were too obviously dismissive of women and sometimes too aggressive,” the former adviser said. “It’s like a double-edged sword: They either ignore you or they aggressively treat you in a way they shouldn’t.”
Some in the White House are also frustrated with Hicks, who previously served as the Trump campaign spokeswoman, because she has recently been romantically linked to Porter and was involved in crafting the first statements defending him.
Meanwhile, Trump himself has shown little interest in distancing himself from Porter. On Friday, Trump praised Porter’s job performance and wished him well in his next job.
“He worked very hard. I found out about it recently, and I was surprised by it,” the president told reporters in the Oval Office as Hicks and Conway looked on. “But we certainly wish him well. It’s a, obviously, tough time for him. He did a very good job when he was in the White House. And we hope he has a wonderful career, and hopefully he will have a great career ahead of him,” Trump said.
Trump also emphasized that Porter has denied the allegations.
“It was very sad when we heard about it. And, certainly, he’s also very sad,” said Trump. “He says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that,” he added.
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