Rob Porter’s Charisma and Ambition Disguised Flare-ups of Anger

Rob Porter, the White House staff secretary who was forced to resign after accusations of spousal abuse, amassed job titles in multiple Senate offices before joining President Trump’s staff.

WASHINGTON — People who crossed paths with Rob Porter in Harvard classrooms or the hallways of Capitol Hill describe him in glowing terms: He was articulate enough to be secretary of state. Intelligent enough to be a Supreme Court justice. Driven enough to be president.

Until Mr. Porter resigned as a White House aide amid domestic abuse accusations, plunging the Trump administration into a scandal over the vetting of West Wing hires, most were certain he would have his pick of positions.

Described as charismatic, intense and privileged, Mr. Porter, the son of Roger B. Porter, a Harvard professor and a former domestic policy adviser to President George Bush, spent years building on his pedigree. He grew up Mormon in a family with close ties to the elite Mormon enclave of Belmont, Mass., collected degrees from Harvard and Oxford University and amassed prestigious job titles.

Though many described him as composed and calm, others in his ultracompetitive workplaces described him as tightly wound, revealing occasional glimpses of how angry he could become, particularly if anyone got in his way. A former White House official said the temper flare-ups left him with the sense that Mr. Porter was more volatile and troubled than his clean-cut image let on.

“He’s smarter than most people,” Taylor West, who attended Harvard with Mr. Porter and saw him as a mentor, said in an interview. “He was a natural leader. But the No. 1 North Star for Rob Porter was ambition.”

After a series of jobs in the Senate, Mr. Porter, 40, was hired as President Trump’s staff secretary in January 2017. He had access to some of the same sensitive information Mr. Trump saw, but lacked a permanent security clearance.

His resignation, on Feb. 7 after two ex-wives accused him of abuse and photos surfaced of one with a black eye she said he had given her, prompted scrutiny over White House aides’ clearances. Some, including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, may now have their access to closely held materials revoked as investigations into their backgrounds continue.

Mr. Porter has denied abusing his ex-wives, and has instead suggested that the women have not shared the whole story. Several of his friends and former colleagues in Congress and in the White House share this belief. Mr. Porter has also privately told people that he believes the security clearance debacle says more about the dysfunction at the White House than it does about his behavior.

Mr. Porter declined to comment for this story. This account is based on interviews with two dozen people, many of whom would not be named because they still work in politics, who were not authorized to comment or were reluctant to speak publicly in his defense.

The elder Mr. Porter, a former aide to Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan and a Harvard professor since 1977, set high expectations for his oldest son, who followed his father’s blueprint closely. Both were Rhodes scholars.

The family spent years gathering for dinners and events at the red brick Dunster House dormitory on the Harvard campus, where the elder Mr. Porter was a master. Mr. Porter’s mother, who died in 2017, was the faculty dean of Dunster House, along the banks of the Charles River.

The family kept a home in Belmont, Mass., the town where the construction of a 69,600-square-foot Mormon temple was completed in 2000. The Porters socialized with other prominent Mormon families, full of high-achieving children and known to compete with each other. Mr. Porter and his three siblings were competitive, too — his youngest sister was the only Porter sibling not to attend Harvard.

Tally Zingher, another former classmate, described Mr. Porter as “an upstanding guy driven by morals.”

“My memory of him is ‘totally positive golden boy,’” Ms. Zingher added.

In 2000, Mr. Porter started dating his first wife, Colbie Holderness, who publicly accused him this month of abuse.

Credit...Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Others from his time in school or professional settings described being stunned at the allegations. Melissa Langsam Braunstein, a former vice president of the Harvard Republican Club who overlapped with Mr. Porter there, said he had a picture-perfect image at Harvard.

“It’s unsettling, shocking and surprising,” she said in an interview.

Mr. Porter graduated from Harvard in 2002 with a degree in government. According to The Harvard Gazette, a magazine published by the university, he chaired the university’s chapter of Students for Bush, in addition to his work with the Republican Club.

A year after he graduated, Mr. Porter and Ms. Holderness were married. The two were in love but sometimes argued over Mr. Porter’s ambition, according to two people who were close to both during their marriage. In 2005, Ms. Holderness said that Mr. Porter punched her while the two were on vacation in Europe, and that he later took photos of a black eye she sustained during their argument. In 2008, Mr. Porter and Ms. Holderness divorced.

By late 2009, he was married to Jennifer Willoughby. Months later, she filed a restraining order against him for trying to enter her apartment while they were separated.

Through his personal struggles, Mr. Porter had support from his father, whose influence in Washington helped him secure jobs there.

“His dad had a very strong hand in decisions that he made,” Ms. Willoughby recalled, “and also sometimes made connections for Rob.” She, like his first wife, is Mormon as well.

When he arrived on Capitol Hill in 2011, Mr. Porter was seen by many who knew him as confident and capable. Several colleagues say Mr. Porter was a consummate professional. As a chief counsel for Senator Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, Mr. Porter reprimanded an aide who made an inappropriate comment toward a woman who worked in the office, according to two people who worked there at the time.

“I’ve known Rob for several years, as both a friend and a co-worker,” Ellen James, who worked with Mr. Porter in Mr. Lee’s office, wrote in an email. “I was never aware of any of the allegations that have become public over the last few days. To my knowledge, he always treated everyone with the utmost respect and professionalism in the workplace.”

Kevin Smith, a spokesman for Senator Rob Portman, the Republican of Ohio in whose office Mr. Porter briefly worked as general counsel, said in a statement that no indication of inappropriate behavior was seen during Mr. Porter’s time there.

After working in Mr. Portman’s office, Mr. Porter took the chief of staff job with Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, in 2014. According to two aides who worked with him there, Mr. Porter was arrogant and overly ambitious, even in a town that seems to have limitless capacity for both. He would occasionally lose his temper and become red in the face when he found himself on the losing end of a workplace argument, the aides said.

As he worked his way through Capitol Hill, Mr. Porter went through his second divorce in 2013. At some point during that separation, friends say Mr. Porter began to be less active within his Mormon community and began drinking, which is discouraged in the faith.

Two friends of Mr. Porter’s, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation for appearing to defend him, said that Mr. Porter had at times struggled to reconcile a stringent religious background with his failed marriages. To be divorced once in the Mormon faith is unusual, they both said, and to be divorced twice is rare.

Usually private about his personal life — few who knew him, including his colleagues at the White House, were even aware he had been married twice — he mentioned to at least one former colleague on Capitol Hill that he would never marry a Mormon woman again.

At the White House, Mr. Porter was seen as a capable, if somewhat overeager, presence. The former White House official said that Mr. Porter had been discussed as a possibility as deputy chief of staff, but it was unclear whether his issues obtaining a security clearance prevented him from advancing.

Questions remain over who knew what, and when, about the investigation into Mr. Porter’s background, including John F. Kelly, the chief of staff, and Donald F. McGahn II, the White House counsel. Late last year, a distraught girlfriend told Mr. McGahn that Mr. Porter had anger problems, according to people familiar with the conversation.

Mr. McGahn, who knew the woman, raised the issue with Mr. Porter, but did not follow up.

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