• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Black Eyes Abound

February 2018

Today, in the blink of an eye, or, perhaps better yet, in the image of a bruised and bloodied eye, we’re confronted with a tale of spousal abuse. It’s a tale whose script is rebarbative yet recurrent, primitive but enduring. It’s a story ripped from the pages of our cruder history, one passed along through decades and societies and kept alive on to these days of our atavistic here and now. We might have thought ourselves immune, adapted, or evolved, but recent events convince me otherwise. Strains of this chronic malady, this pernicious little disease of domestic abuse, this virile virus appear still to exist all around.

It’s shocking, though, that two cases of this blight have arisen in one week, under one roof, perpetrated by two men terrorizing four women. The duo of men, in this case, includes Robert Porter and David Sorensen. The former and more integral of the two was President Trump’s Staff Secretary and General John Kelly’s friend, point-man, and confidante. The latter and lesser-known Sorensen was a speechwriter for the president—and an apparently capable one, at that. Though perhaps less important than Porter’s, Sorensen’s absence is sure to be felt. It’s no small task, after all, to veil a president full of inveterate vulgarities, long-winded rants, and grammatical disdain with an unnatural eloquence and syntax. In this, Trump’s team of speechwriters who were, until this week, led by David Sorensen, should be considered among the masters of the ageless oratory art.

Sorensen was accused of physical, emotional, and verbal abuse by his ex-wife, Jessica Corbett. Most of their fights, she admitted, were of an emotional and verbal kind, but she could call to mind at least five times when he placed his hands upon her with unaffectionate intent. One of those times, in fact, ended with her being slammed into a nearby wall—an unforgiving end to any dispute. Sorensen, in response, sought to do her one better by claiming that it was, in fact, she who had abused him in all of those aforementioned spats. She did so not five, but six times. A henpecked victim of her wrath, Sorensen claimed that he was merely responding (or reciprocating) her attacks. Nevertheless, he mustn’t have wholly believed his own side of the story; he voluntarily resigned from his position in the White House on Wednesday.

Whereas Sorensen chose to defend his name by turning the tables of victimhood upon his accuser and playing the “he said, she said” card, Robert Porter hadn’t that empty luxury of a last stand. It’s been documented, verifiably and repeatedly, that Porter abused multiple ex-wives and a former girlfriend. His two ex-wives, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, made public their experiences with Porter during each one's brief marriage. Willoughby, his most recent ex-wife, described in excruciating and incriminating detail Porter’s violent behavior. She recounted an evening when he, inebriated and irate, grabbed her from the shower, thrust her upon a bed, and proceeded to push upon her chest his formidable weight. Breathless and beaten, she sought a divorce not long after the event.

If you think that what happened between Porter and Willoughby was bad, you’re right—It was. Unfortunately, though, Porter's barbarity and his mistreatment of his wife didn’t stop there.

Before Willoughby, Porter was married to Colbie Holderness. It’s the lurid picture of Holderness’s black eye that’s become this year’s early, indelible mark. It’s the image of a woman’s battered face with its tell-tale black eye, that infamous stigmata of domestic abuse. It’s the still-shot of incivility and Porter, the Cro-Magnon, incarnate.

You see in Holderness’ face a swollen eye drooping with silent courage upon a cheek. You see a face changing, painfully and iridescently, from unnatural hues of yellow to purple to black as the damage races from ear to nose. You see the broken blood vessels that will, in time, suture their unwelcome hemorrhage and invite healing. But what of her spirit—had that too been broken? In the photograph, taken immediately after the assault, Holderness prepares herself to answer that question. She looks into the camera with eyes at once stoic, unflinching, and without a tincture of sadness. In her stare is brave resolution.

It’s a testament to Holderness, and to Willoughby, that the two should be so strong. But, what to make of their shared aggressor? By all accounts, Porter’s abusive penchant in no way impeded his career and its success. On the contrary, it seems only to have been compounded, like interest accrued, as incoming honors kept coming. After serving as Senator Orrin Hatch’s Chief of Staff, Porter departed Capitol Hill for the West Wing. In the Trump administration’s employ, he was named Staff Secretary, first to Reince Priebus and then to John Kelly. Porter relished his new role and appears to have been someone especially capable of navigating the many cliques, conduits, and caprices of an administration forever in flux. Charismatic, ambitious, deferential, and succinct, he was a reliably, if not universally, popular figure within Trump’s cabinet.

But his agreeableness and efficiency came at a price. As recounted in full, he was, for lack of a better word, a criminal. Not only that, he was a recidivist—a repeat offender without compunction or scruple. You’d think a man with such a history would find it difficult gaining employment at a junkyard, let alone the highest echelon of the world's eminent government with a salary funded by the tax-payer’s fee. Surely, the government, with all of its unencumbered oversight and efficiency, would spot a blemished past such as his (which again, was documented and submitted by Willoughby and by Holderness to the police prior to his White House employment). Not only that, it was placed right beneath the administration’s nose. Holderness, Porter’s first wife, not only submitted her police report (including the unassailable evidence that is her photograph) to the FBI, but also to the administration’s chief counsel, Don McGahn.

The FBI, for all of its accreting failures and missteps—be they self-inflicted or not—seems at least in this case to have adhered to its protocol and followed the proper route. The FBI sedulously provided White House officials with its findings as they pertained to Porter’s background. In the course of a year, the bureau’s director Christopher Wray claims his department to have given and continually updated the White House with all findings pertinent to Porter’s revealingly ugly past. In a statement that all but damned the administration’s position, which held that it was ignorant and thereby innocent of anything Porter had done, Wray chronicled when and how the department’s findings were released: in March of 2017, they were done so partially; in July of that summer, fully; and in January of the new year, the one in which we live, its investigation was finalized and closed. (Wray’s statement and its tight chronology came after an announcement made by Raj Shah, the administration’s deputy press secretary. In it, Shah claimed (as we've come to realize, mendaciously) that the FBI’s investigation into Porter was incomplete. Surprisingly, and rather unnervingly, his deceit has met little response and he’s yet to revisit and correct the claim.

What this means is that for at least six months, and more probably, ten months, the Trump administration was aware yet unmoved by the fact that it had in its midst and very near its helm a wife-beater, and a practiced one at that. It was for this reason, we would soon learn, that the FBI placed a stay on Porter’s security clearance—a proscription, of sorts, unprecedented when one considers the proximity he had to the Chief of Staff.

The reports should’ve roused the Trump White House into taking action against Porter, regardless of the inextricable antipathy with which it views the FBI. This, however, wasn’t the case. An obstinate administration needs more than just a politically-motivated intelligence community to sway its opinion. As if anticipating the times, Holderness took it upon herself to bypass the FBI and abridge the administration of her ex-husband’s past and of the abuse she’d suffered at his hands. On four separate occasions, Holderness contacted the chief White House Counsel, Don McGahn to inform him of just that. Worse than words falling upon deaf ears, though, hers collided with a negligent heart. To her fusillade of red flags, McGahn proved idle and unresponsive. He chose not to act on Holderness’ account with celerity, instead opting to ignore her claim altogether. Had he moved, the administration might’ve fired Porter and gotten ahead of the fall-out--this embarrassing morass in which it now drowns.

Just as McGahn is on the hook for his blatant dereliction, so too is John Kelly—Porter’s superior and President Trump’s aide-de-camp. It’s impossible to consider a scenario in which Kelly, a man vaunted for his punctiliousness, order, and “no nonsense” attitude, allowed into his inner sanctum a man so alleged. Ultimately, the onus lies with him. Just as a man is responsible for his hand and the injuries it might inflict, so too is the boss to his hireling and the executive to his employee (by this line of reasoning, the responsibility might actually lie with President Trump, being that he is the executive not only of the federal government, but of his staff. Likely, though, we won’t demand of him an apology, but it’s an important truth worth bearing in mind).

It’s manifestly clear that Kelly knew much more than he's led us to believe. Immediately when the story broke, but before Holderness’ damning photo was released, Kelly issued a statement defending Porter and standing by his man. In it, he lauded Porter for his allegiance and his indefatigable commitment to the commonweal. It was hasty and short-sighted (and likely, the sympathetic defense of Hope Hicks, the White House's Communications Director and, at present, ill-fated inamorata to Porter). Within hours, his statement was replaced with backpedaling, equivocations, and the frantic search for an exculpatory narrative, which, in my opinion, he’s yet to have found. Kelly, like the rest of America, claims only to have learned of Porter's past mere moments ago. Beyond unlikely, beyond even specious, this looks beyond a doubt to be a lie. In any other business, corporation, enterprise—you name it, Kelly’s misconduct would be an offense worthy of his badge and gun. Across the president’s desk they should be slid. Probably they won’t be. Obstinately, he'll remain. In the end, added to this administration's story will be another chapter of embarrassment with a subtitle reading “shame”.

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