Why Didn’t the White House See Domestic Violence as Disqualifying?

That the president’s staff was unable to recognize the seriousness of the allegations against Rob Porter may reflect how many members of his team have faced similar claims—including Trump himself.

White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, center, hands President Donald Trump a confirmation order for James Mattis as defense secretary on January 20, 2017. (Evan Vucci / AP)

On New Year’s Day, 1996, future Trump campaign chair Steve Bannon was charged with three misdemeanor counts of domestic violence by the Santa Monica police. The charges were eventually dropped when his then-wife did not appear at the trial. On the day that she called the police to her house, however, she told them that at the beginning of their relationship, there had been “3-4 arguments that became physical,” according to the police report. They had gone to counseling, though, and she told police that there had “not been any physical abuse in their arguments for about the past four years”—until the violent altercation that day.

Bannon’s predecessor at the Trump campaign also faced criminal charges for violence against a woman. Corey Lewandowski was arrested in Florida on March 29, 2017, on misdemeanor battery charges. On March 8, Lewandowski had grabbed and pulled aside a reporter, Michelle Fields. Fields photographed and tweeted the bruises on her arm. Lewandowski denied that he touched Fields until contradicted by video evidence. The state attorney ultimately decided that there was not enough evidence to pursue criminal charges, and dropped the case.

President Trump himself has been the target of allegations of violence against the women in his life, most notably his first wife Ivana. During their 1990 divorce, Ivana swore in a deposition that Trump—in a rage about an unexpectedly painful scalp-reduction surgery performed by a surgeon she had recommended—had yanked a handful of her hair from her head and forced himself upon her sexually. The deposition further claimed that she spent the night locked in a bathroom weeping. The next morning, Trump asked her, “with menacing casualness, ‘Does it hurt?’” A copy of the deposition was obtained by a Trump biographer and quoted in a 1993 book. (The book would later be amended with a statement by Ivana, after the divorce settlement, acknowledging that in her deposition, “I referred to this as a ‘rape,’ but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense.”)

So there is some context as to how it could happen that the Trump White House could decide to overlook an FBI report that two ex-wives of a senior staffer had alleged he had a history of domestic battery. White House staff secretary is a crucially important job. The staff secretary controls the White House document flow, determining much of what the president sees and does not see. The job is powerful, and has conferred power on many of those who have held it: Jon Huntsman Sr. under President Nixon; Richard Darman under President Reagan; John Podesta under President Clinton; and Harriet Miers and future appeals judge Brett Kavanaugh under President George W. Bush.

It’s a fascinating question why the Trump White House would not regard domestic violence as a cause for concern for the holder of this office, and not only as a matter of decency and established precedent. As long ago as the Reagan administration, a senior official at the Securities and Exchange Commission was compelled to resign after a divorce proceeding revealed his history of domestic violence.

Violence at home indicates a dangerous temperament for a high official, including vulnerability to blackmail. Few targets for blackmail could be more attractive than the person across whose desk flow so many of the secrets of the presidency—and who can do so much to guide or blind the president’s view of the world. Yet it’s also easy to understand why a White House and campaign team so prone themselves to violence against women would shrug off the FBI’s information about Rob Porter as nothing so very serious, and certainly not disqualifying. We are very forgiving of sins we have committed ourselves or can imagine ourselves committing.

Trump excused his “grab them by the pussy” comment as “locker-room talk.” In fact, the way we talk reveals the way we think. This president sent a message to the people around him about what is permitted, or at any rate, what is forgivable. Is it any surprise that they heard his message—and complied?