WASHINGTON: A second White House staffer in a week resigned on Friday over domestic abuse claims, in a widening scandal that called into question the president’s judgment and tainted his chief of staff John Kelly and longtime aide Hope Hicks.
White House speechwriter David Sorensen denied his wife’s claims of abuse but resigned – hours after President Donald Trump was criticised for wishing staff secretary Rob Porter a “wonderful career” after he too resigned amid similar accusations.
Porter – who denies abuse alleged by two ex-wives, one of whom released a photo of herself with a black eye – worked at the heart of the White House throughout the first year of Trump’s administration, despite being denied a full security clearance.
He only stepped down from his post-Wednesday after the accusations became public.
Trump, who has himself been accused of sexual harassment or assault by two dozen women, fuelled the scandal by praising Porter and suggesting he had a bright future.
He made no mention of the ex-wives or the alleged domestic abuse.
“We certainly wish him well, and it’s a tough time for him,” Trump said in the Oval Office.
“He did a very good job when he was in the White House. And we hope he has a wonderful career and he will have a great career ahead of him.”
“As you probably know, he says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that.”
That prompted a sharp rebuke from Democrats like Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, who slammed the White House’s “culture of misogyny.”
Chief of Staff John Kelly was aware of the allegations and also praised Porter’s conduct in the White House, maintaining that “every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation.”
Hicks, perhaps Trump’s most trusted aide, had helped craft the response to the scandal as White House communications director, despite being romantically involved with Porter.
Deputy White House spokesman Raj Shah said the White House only learned late Thursday about allegations against Sorensen, the speechwriter.
“We immediately confronted the staffer, he denied the allegations and he resigned today,” Shah said.
Sorensen’s ex-wife Jessica Corbett told The Washington Post that while they were married, he ran a car over her foot, extinguished a cigarette on her hand, threw her into a wall and grabbed her by her hair, but that she did not report the incidents due to her then-husband’s connections to law enforcement.
While Sorensen’s post as a Council on Environmental Quality speechwriter did not require a security clearance, Corbett said she had described his behavior to the FBI as it conducted an ongoing background check of Sorensen in the fall.
“It’s alarming Rob Porter remained in an influential role,” said Democratic Representative Ann McLane Kuster, “even as revelations about his domestic abuse were apparently known among senior Trump staffers.”
Trump confidant and former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski – who was formerly romantically involved with Hicks – pointed a finger of blame at former Marine corps general Kelly.
“The general is there to put in policies and processes and procedures. And in this case, those didn’t work and we need to find out why” he told Fox News.
The White House was forced to quell rumours that Kelly was ready to resign.
Trump and “many” White House staffers were irritated by Kelly’s support for Porter’s character and for falsely insisting he that he aggressively sought to have him fired once the abuse allegations surfaced, according to The New York Times.
Vice President Mike Pence, who is attending the Olympics in South Korea, tried to distance himself from the issue, but also stressed in an NBC interview that “there is no tolerance in this White House, no place in America for domestic abuse.”
‘Could have done better’
Trump was elected promising to bring “the best people” with him to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
In reality, he has struggled to hire high-caliber staff, with many experienced Washington operatives keeping their distance.
“A lot of us could have done better,” Shah told reporters in a rare show of contrition from the Trump White House.
Shah refused to confirm in detail when and how Kelly, in particular, became aware of the claims, or Hicks’s role in shaping the White House response.
Until hours before the Harvard graduate left his post, the White House was praising him as an upstanding and integral member of staff.
“Rob Porter has been effective in his role as staff secretary. The president and chief of staff have full confidence in his abilities and his performance,” said spokeswoman Sarah Sanders.
In an interview with CNN, Porter’s ex-wife Jennifer Willoughby detailed allegations of abuse, saying that during her marriage she lived under a “low-grade constant terror of not knowing what I might do to set something off.”
Trump’s administration has been beset by scandal and staff departures.
Porter had been a rare staffer inside the White House who knew Washington, was widely respected and was seen as good at his job.