On Friday, President Donald Trump finally commented on the rising scandal over Rob Porter, the now-former White House staff secretary who has been accused of domestic violence by both his ex-wives.
“He says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that,” said the president, who takes men’s protestations of innocence over charges like this very, very seriously. “We absolutely wish him well.”
This is a somewhat unusual scandal in that it doesn’t seem to involve President Trump himself doing something corrupt, despicable, or bizarre. But it is nonetheless a very Trumpian scandal, in that it provides a window into so much of the pathology that Trump has created in his administration.
Let’s begin with this question: If you work for Donald Trump, what gets you fired? Do multiple, credible accusations of wife-beating do it? Well, no. Top White House officials knew for months of the charges against Porter, and not only didn’t get rid of him, they gave him more responsibility. As The Post reports, White House Counsel Don McGahn knew about the domestic violence allegations a full year ago, and chief of staff John Kelly found out at least as long ago as last fall. Deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin also reportedly knew last fall about the charges. There may well be others who knew as well.
Those allegations - and the fact that they could potentially be used to blackmail him - were the reason that Porter’s security clearance was being held up. Yet McGahn and Kelly not only didn’t see it as a problem, they were eager for Porter to stay on, apparently because he was a competent employee, something that is unusually rare in this White House. Kelly initially urged Porter to stay, and earlier this week called him “a man of true integrity and honor,” despite the fact that, as Politico reports, “Kelly had been aware for several weeks that Porter would never receive a full security clearance due to a protective order that had been filed against him by an ex-wife in 2010.”
No one could pretend to be all that surprised that this White House doesn’t see allegations of domestic violence as disqualifying from government service, since they have hired or appointed other men with similar accusations against them, including Steve Bannon and Andrew Puzder, Trump’s first choice to be secretary of labor. When you’re working for Trump - who has himself been accused by over a dozen women of various forms of sexual assault and impropriety, and who not only takes the position that they’re all liars but requires his underlings to repeat that defense - you’re probably not going to get bent out of shape when you learn that the ex-wife of the guy in the next office filed a protective order against him.
When Trump administration officials are shown the door, it’s almost never because they’ve committed some act of malfeasance. It’s for one of a couple of reasons: either their malfeasance has become public, and eventually caused the administration too much embarrassment, or they’ve taken too much attention away from Donald Trump. Or, of course, they’re investigating Donald Trump and are therefore seen as enemies.
Philip Bump has a good list of the three dozen Trump officials who have been fired, were pushed out, or resigned from the administration, an unprecedentedly high number this early in a presidency. For three, the cause was that “past racist comments were made public.” Clearly, racism is no bar to working in the Trump administration; it’s only when one’s racism is revealed to be on record and becomes too embarrassing that one is in danger.
Similarly, former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was pushed out after his profligate use of private jets was given lengthy coverage in the news media, though it’s safe to say that it was the negative attention and not the deed itself that upset President Trump, a great lover of private air travel himself. The White House knew for weeks that Michael Flynn had lied to officials about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, yet he kept working as national security adviser; it was only after the story became public that he was fired.
There are a few former Trump officials who lost out in internal power struggles, and others, like Bannon and Anthony Scaramucci, who won the president’s displeasure by being too visible and too critical of others in the White House. Trump often uses “showboat” and “grandstander” as epithets, the point being that there’s only room in this White House for one showboating grandstander, and he’s the guy in the Oval Office.
All of which adds up to a simple rule: President Trump and his top aides don’t really care what you do, as long as you aren’t embarrassing Trump.
Of course, every administration is concerned about negative publicity, and the light of public attention is often what forces the hand of the president or other high-ranking officials to rid themselves of someone who is hurting their image. But what distinguishes this White House is its utter lack of a foundation of principles. Appointments have had offers quickly withdrawn when it’s discovered they once said something disparaging about Trump, but disloyalty to the president is just about the only sin this administration considers unpardonable.
And that comes from the top. This White House doesn’t abhor dishonesty, self-dealing, corruption, or even abuse of women, for the simple reason that the president himself is guilty of all those things, and in most cases has even proudly proclaimed his guilt. If you’re eager to work for Trump, by definition you’re someone who considers moral behavior to be optional at most. If you think there aren’t other Trump aides with ugly sins (or even crimes) in their past or present, you’re being awfully generous (or perhaps naïve).
But as long as those sins don’t become public, the White House won’t mind.
Waldman is a senior writer at The American Prospect.