POLITICS
20/02/2018 02:02 SAST | Updated 20/02/2018 18:31 SAST

Trump White House Finally Confronts A Scandal It Can’t Quash With An ‘Alternative Fact'

#MeToo and photos of an ex-wife’s bruised eye forced Trump’s staff to back away from original explanations – and shredded the president’s credibility even further.

WASHINGTON – From their first full day in office with claims of massive, record-setting inaugural crowds, President Donald Trump and his top aides have been a virtual juggernaut of dishonesties and falsehoods, seemingly immune to normal White House standards of candor and accuracy.

Until this month.

Two weeks’ worth of shifting explanations about a key staffer accused of domestic violence have accomplished what a full year of fact-checking thousands of untruths could not: put the White House on the defensive and shredded its credibility.

“At long last, something Donald Trump couldn’t bullshit his way out of,” said Rick Wilson, a Florida GOP consultant who has been calling Trump a liar since the start of the presidential primary campaign in 2015.

But why has the Rob Porter story persisted when all the others did not?

“Attachment to a larger narrative and a provocative visual,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a communications professor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

The larger narrative is the Me Too movement, where women across the country and around the world have spoken out about long-quashed experiences of sexual harassment and abuse. And the provocative visual was the photograph of Colbie Holderness’ bruised eye, which she said was the result of a punch  Porter threw during the couple’s vacation to Italy in 2005.

Until that photo of Porter’s first ex-wife surfaced, White House chief of staff John Kelly had been offering testimonials for his trusted aide. With the arrival of Kelly in August and his attempts to bring order to what had been a chaotic White House, Porter as staff secretary had become a key player in limiting access and information to Trump.

His work, under Kelly’s direction, dramatically reduced the unscheduled visits Trump received from random West Wing staffers and the number of unverified “news” articles that wound up on his desk.

To protect his aide and ally, Kelly and other top White House staffers praised Porter, even though the White House had received a full FBI security clearance background investigation into Porter last summer, according to Senate testimony by bureau director Christopher Wray. That report almost certainly included stories of abuse from both of Porter’s ex-wives – allegations that typically doom a security clearance approval.

All of that changed when the photo spread across the internet and cable television, putting a human face on Porter’s alleged actions. That set off a dizzying series of revised statements. At first, the White House claimed that Porter resigned on his own but would stay on through a “transition.” But within a day, that had evolved into Kelly having forced Porter to leave within 40 minutes of seeing the photo.

“I think the photo had a real impact on people,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican political consultant who worked for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 GOP primaries. “They went into their normal mode, which is deflect everything, deny everything, fake news everything.”

The problem for the White House was that journalists could see the new explanations contradicting others issued just hours earlier and were quick to point them out. This angered even reporters who in the past year have enjoyed good access to top White House staff.

“Normally reporters don’t know a lie is a lie in real time,” said a Republican official who supports Trump and spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss his party’s leader. “I’m amazed that this is a story that keeps going. They haven’t found a way to put this thing away.”

One of the reasons for the story’s durability may have been Trump’s reluctance to speak out in favor of the victims. It took him seven days to do so, and even then he expressed irritation. 

“I’m totally opposed to domestic violence of any kind. Everyone knows that, and it almost wouldn’t even have to be said,” he said following a Feb. 14 photo opportunity. “So now you hear it, but you all know it.” 

Just a day earlier, Trump had twice refused to answer questions about domestic violence. And two days after Porter’s departure, he had wished his former staff secretary well in his career and had pointed out that Porter denied he had done anything wrong. “As you probably know, he says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that,” Trump said.

Why it took so long for Trump to come out with what might seem an obvious and politically easy statement is unclear.

In his year in office, Trump has repeatedly shown great deference to what his base thinks about any given issue. It drove his decision to speak well of the neo-Nazis protesting the removal of a Confederate monument in Charlottesville, Virginia – protests that led to the killing of a counter-protester.

Recent HuffPost/YouGov polling shows that only 26 percent of male Trump voters believe that domestic violence is a serious problem in the country. In contrast, 78 percent of women who voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in 2016 believe it is a serious issue, while 50 percent of female Trump voters think so.

One former Trump aide said the president’s failure to speak about women victims of abuse generally is grounded more in his dislike of being pressured into doing something, particularly when he believes it is the news media doing the pressuring.

“To the president, this is the media playing the fiddle and forcing the White House to dance,” the former aide said. “Donald Trump is absolutely wedded to never dancing to the tune you play for him.”

Ironically, the Porter issue has moved off front pages in recent days, but only because special counsel Robert Mueller released a major grand jury indictment in his probe of Russian influence in the 2016 election and because 17 students and staff were killed in the country’s latest school shooting.

That the Porter scandal will return to the foreground is almost certain, though, given bipartisan congressional interest in how the White House is handling its security clearance process. Several dozen top officials – including Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner – reportedly are still working on interim security clearances.

In the meantime, the White House appears to have fallen back on its old habit of outright falsehoods. Trump personally issued several over the weekend in a series of tweets regarding the Mueller investigation, while deputy press secretary Raj Shah appeared on Fox News and claimed that the new indictment showed that the Russian interference was “about sowing confusion in the electoral process and undermining the next president, not about supporting one candidate over the other.”

In fact, the indictment clearly states that the Russians wanted Trump to win as a way of harming the United States, which matches the Jan. 6, 2017, declassified report by the U.S. intelligence agencies that found the same thing.

Shah declined to discuss his on-air statement to Fox with HuffPost.

Jamieson, the communications professor, said the latest round of untruths will further erode both Trump’s and the White House’s credibility, with journalists as well as the public at large.

“You don’t get the benefit of the doubt, nor should you,” she said, adding that press secretaries and their deputies who told such obvious falsehoods in the past would have been excoriated rather than given a pass. “We’ve basically permitted the White House to redefine the press secretary’s job. You used to expect a press secretary to resign rather than actively deceive.”