Donald Trump leaped to the defence on Friday of a close White House aide who was forced to resign after two ex-wives accused him of domestic abuse.
Staff secretary Rob Porter, who was initially defended by the White House, quit on Wednesday following the publication of photos that showed one of the women with a black eye.
But two days after Porter’s departure, the US president was effusive in his support for Porter and failed to express any sympathy or concern for the two women who have given accounts of being assaulted.
Speaking in the Oval Office, Trump said: “We wish him well, he worked very hard. We found out about it recently and I was surprised by it, but we certainly wish him well and it’s a 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 he will have a great career ahead of him. But it was very sad when we heard about it and certainly he’s also very sad now.”
The president added: “He also, as you probably know, says he’s innocent and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent so you have to talk to him about that, but we absolutely wish him well, he did a very good job when he was at the White House.”
The scandal around Porter has engulfed the White House this week. The chief of staff, John Kelly, initially issued a statement describing his close aide as a “man of true integrity”. But after the photos were published, Kelly hastily released a second statement saying he was “shocked” by the allegations, though he said Porter had a right to defend himself.
Kelly told officials in the West Wing on Friday that he was willing to quit over his handling of the matter, the New York Times reported, citing two unnamed officials.
A resignation did not appear imminent, the paper added, but multiple media reports suggested that Trump was frustrated with Kelly and considering potential successors.
A split with Mike Pence also emerged. Striking a distinctly different tone from Trump and Kelly, the vice-president, attending the winter Olympics in South Korea, told NBC: “I was appalled when I learned of the allegations against Rob Porter. There’s no tolerance in this White House and no place in America for domestic abuse.”
Trump himself has been accused of sexual misconduct by 19 women. His 2016 election campaign was rocked by the release of an Access Hollywood video in which he boasted his celebrity status allows him to “grab ’em by the pussy”. Pence was reportedly appalled by the revelations.
Trump also has a history of defending men who are alleged to have abused women. When his election campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, faced a misdemeanour battery charge after an altercation with a female reporter, he asked: “How do you know those bruises weren’t there before?” When Fox News head Roger Ailes died, Trump said of his accusers, “He helped those women”, and he said of Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who left the company because of similar allegations, “He is a good person,” and “I don’t think Bill did anything wrong.”
The president also threw his weight behind Roy Moore, a Republican candidate for the US Senate in Alabama, despite him facing numerous allegations of sexual misconduct, including inappropriate contact with a 14-year-old girl. Moore went on to lose the special election.
The president’s remarks on Friday provoked instant criticism. Senator Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate in the 2016 election, tweeted: “What’s ‘sad’ is having a complete moral vacuum in the Oval Office. Domestic violence is evil, and there aren’t ‘both sides’ on this issue.”
Ari Fleischer, former White House press secretary under President George W Bush, told Fox News that the president’s affection for Porter was clear but added: “I think the president could have added domestic violence against women is a very serious issue and his heart goes out to anyone affected by domestic violence. That would have been the appropriate, presidential thing to say.”
Journalist Joy Reid tweeted: “Trump’s response to the Rob Porter firing was telling. Not a word of sympathy for Porter’s victims. Total support for the man they say abused them. The Trump era is shining a glaring spotlight on a gender ethos that has lingered long past its sell-by date.”
Colbie Holderness, Porter’s first wife, told the Daily Mail that he choked and punched her during the five years they were married. His second wife, Jennifer Willoughby, also told the Daily Mail that Porter once dragged her naked and wet from the shower to yell at her. She filed a protective order against him.
Questions have been raised over how Porter was allowed to work at the White House on an interim security clearance, with access to classified information, while his background check was being completed. Willoughby told NBC News on Thursday: “During the FBI background interview for security clearance, I shared with the FBI all of the details that I shared in previous articles, including access to a protective order from June of 2010, and police calls that I had made to our home.”
Porter, 40, a Harvard Law School graduate, is reportedly now dating the White House communications director, Hope Hicks, one of Trump’s most loyal aides. He has dismissed the allegations against him as “outrageous” and “simply false”.
On Thursday the deputy press secretary, Raj Shah, admitted: “I think it’s fair to say that we all could have done better over the last few hours, or last few days, in dealing with this situation.”