Opinion: A blind eye to a black eye

This ain’t right.

In a statement released Wednesday night, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told the country that he had been shocked by “new allegations” released against Rob Porter, a top White House staffer who had just been forced to resign. 

“There is no place for domestic violence in our society,” Kelly said, adding that “I stand by my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming chief of staff.”

Short as it is, there are a lot of problems with that statement. The most significant is Kelly’s claim that “new allegations” had somehow altered his understanding of the situation and forced a personnel change.

There are no new allegations, not for Kelly.

There are allegations from Porter’s first wife, dating back to 2003, that he had been physically abusive, and there is photographic evidence of that abuse. There are similar allegations from Porter’s second wife, dating back to 2009. Both women have confirmed that they told those stories more than a year ago, fully and completely, to FBI agents who were conducting a background check of Porter.

The FBI was also given the photographic evidence, evidence of police calls and a protective court order that had been filed against Porter.

Kelly, as White House chief of staff and Porter’s immediate superior, cannot plausibly claim ignorance of all or any of that. Kelly, as White House chief of staff, had to know that Porter had been denied a top security clearance by the FBI, and he had to have known why. These allegations and the evidence to substantiate them cannot be new to Kelly; what is new is that everybody else now knows it as well.

That leads us to another sentence in Kelly’s statement: “There is no place for domestic violence in our society.”

That is apparently incorrect. For more than a year, there has indeed been a place for it, and for Rob Porter that place was a prominent position in the Trump White House. Kelly provided that position, even knowing the allegations against his top aide. Even as those allegations became public this week, Kelly urged Porter to remain and publicly defended him as a man of honor and integrity whom he was proud to work aside.

From his behavior and statements, we can safely conclude that Kelly did not believe that well-documented allegations of serial wife-beating were serious enough to justify Porter’s removal. Only public exposure forced Kelly’s change of heart and mind, and that has come grudgingly. Even as the nation as a whole recoiled in horror against allegations of abuse against men such as Harvey Weinstein, Steve Wynn, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose and even members of Congress, Kelly was quietly promoting and protecting Porter. By doing so, he not only ignored profound questions of moral character, he exposed others in the White House workforce to potential violence.

That raises another troubling aspect of this case. Kelly is a retired four-star Marine general, where he was responsible for the safety of tens of thousands of men and women under his command. In recent years, the U.S. military has itself been rocked with allegations that it does not treat allegations of sexual abuse seriously, that it tends to brush such cases aside to protect the careers of the perpetrators.

Unfortunately, Kelly’s handling of this case demonstrates how widespread such an attitude might be in the top ranks of the military, and also its consequences.

In a normal political world, Congress would now begin to play its critical oversight role. It would want to document what Kelly knew and when. It would ask hard questions about the judgment involved in keeping Porter in such a sensitive role for so long, and in protecting him. It would demand to know why a person who was denied a top-secret security clearance, and for good reason, was hired and promoted into a job where he dealt with top-secret material on a daily if not hourly basis.

We do not currently occupy such a world.