When now-former White House staff secretary Rob Porter sat down for an off-the-record meeting with four reporters hours after the publication of a Daily Mail story showing his first wife with a black eye, he was quick to deny the allegations of physical abuse.
The reporters present for the meeting — the New York Times’ Maggie Haberman, the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey, Axios’ Jonathan Swan, and the Wall Street Journal’s Michael Bender — pressed Porter to explain the picture of his first wife with a black eye as well as his comment that he had taken the picture in question. He told them what he had told his colleagues: that, on vacation in Florence, the two had quarreled over a Venetian glass vase, and that his then wife, Colbie Holderness, had fallen and bruised her eye.
Porter, who until that point had been seen as one of the most competent trusted aides in the West Wing, also confirmed that he was resigning his post, but White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and two other communications aides – Josh Raffel and Raj Shah – interjected that White House chief of staff John Kelly had urged Porter to stay, according to a person familiar with the exchange.
The meeting, at which Porter also conceded calling his second wife “a f***ing bitch,” was arranged by Sanders as the scandal mushroomed on Feb. 7 and seen by one participant as an effort to give Porter a chance to defend himself while letting the White House distance itself from him by not speaking on his behalf. The reporters, in keeping with the off-the-record terms, did not use the information conveyed in the meeting.
“They were attempting to do a prudent thing stupidly,” said another person familiar with the meeting.
Instead, the fact of the meeting has raised questions about how swiftly the White House, which was aware of a protective order previously obtained by one of his ex-wives, moved to oust Porter after the Daily Mail story came out—and turned into a source of consternation among some of Sanders’ colleagues in the White House press office, some of whom have been critical of her decision to arrange it.
Sanders told colleagues that she was arranging the meeting for reporters who had information indicating that Porter had resigned. The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the meeting.
Kelly has said that Porter “was gone” 40 minutes after he was fully briefed on the allegations, and it is unclear whether he knew about the meeting, which took place mid-day Wednesday. Shortly thereafter, Sanders briefed the full White House press corps and told them that, despite Porter’s resignation, President Donald Trump as well as chief-of-staff John Kelly had “full confidence and trust in his abilities and his performance.”