This weekend, while the White House was scrambling to spin revelations that two high-level staffers were resigning as, respectively, gatekeeper to and speechwriter for the president, Trump himself threw everybody a curve by issuing what may be the two most gentle, empathic, understanding, and heartfelt statements he’s made since taking office. The first was made orally to the press on Friday in response to a request for comment on Rob Porter, the staff secretary who resigned amid reports that he had physically and emotionally abused two of his ex-wives.
“Well, we wish him well,” said the president, the slight tension around his mouth seeming to mask defiance or some other deep feeling. “He worked very hard. I found out about it recently, and I was surprised by it. But we certainly wish him well …”
It was an overview of the situation that upset a lot of people, not least of all Porter’s second* ex-wife, Jennie Willoughby. It’s since been widely criticized, on a number of points: Trump hadn’t expressed concern for the women; in fact, he hadn’t mentioned the women at all. By sharing and repeating Porter’s claims “that he is innocent,” Trump was re-silencing Porter’s two former wives. He was calling the now newly muted and hidden Willoughby and Colbie Holderness liars.
Of course, Trump has been running interference for abusers for more than 25 years, starting in the 1990s, when he called his good friend Mike Tyson’s 1992 rape conviction “a travesty” in a radio interview with Howard Stern. He told Stern Tyson had been “railroaded” and, in another interview, he passed on to a reporter for New York Magazine Tyson’s own assessment of his case: that his victim had “wanted it bad.” And Trump has also made various apologias for friends and allies accused of crimes and misdemeanors: Roy Moore, Roger Ailes, Corey Lewandowski, Bill O’Reilly. What was new and strange and startling about Trump’s statement on Rob Porter was the absence of his usual bravado. More than the actual content and substance of Trump’s remarks at the press conference on Friday, what was disturbing about it was Trump’s affect: his demeanor and the way he was speaking — the almost total departure from the aggressive persona we’ve come to know and expect.
We’re so used to Trump’s rhetorical antics that we approach any situation that involves watching and listening to him braced for distaste or disgust, steeled for another confrontation with his failures as a speaker and a human being: the incoherence, the bullying, the posturing, the meaningless, made-up fronting-off, the play-acting, the naked contempt for everyone else in the world — but chiefly, when addressing the press or the public, for the people he is talking to and about.
Yet here was this soft-spoken, reasonable man, uttering measured, apparently well-considered phrases, fully cognizant not only of his words but of the need to appeal to his listeners. He seemed vulnerable from the outset, sitting blank-faced and almost humble, making no effort to forestall or deflect, and for once, when he started to speak, he seemed to be thinking about his words. He seemed to be trying to conceal rather than project emotion, suppressing sorrow with seriousness — like a headmaster speaking of a promising student whose life had been derailed by a self-destructive decision.
Here at last, in the figure of Rob Porter, a man who was to all appearances a serial abuser, was someone able to elicit from Trump the empathy and compassion we never see — because Trump himself is an accused predator and abuser, who has been described by nearly 20 women, including an ex-wife, as having committed an array of various kinds of sexual assault, from forced kisses, to groping and “pussy-grabbing”.
The same quiet, dignified sadness that reigned over the press conference on Friday imbued Trump’s tweet the following day — presumably about Porter and, by now, also David Sorensen, whose ex-wife’s story about her husband searing her flesh with a cigarette had led to another hasty departure from Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Peoples [sic] lives are being shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation,” wrote the president. “Some are true and some are false. Some are old and some are new. There is no recovery for someone falsely accused—life and career are gone. Is there no such thing any longer as Due Process?”
Again the women are absent here, again hidden and mute. Most striking, though, about Trump’s Saturday tweet on the departing White House abusers is the way it turns the scenario on its head: It is the men’s lives that are “shattered” and “destroyed.” (Odd, how that “shattering” even echoed the shattered glass in a story Willoughby told Anderson Cooper about her estranged husband trying to break in her door.) In Trump’s version of events, words that are conventionally used to describe the lives of the victims of a crime — “destroyed,” “no recovery” — are instead applied to the men in the story. In his mind, it seems, the abuser is victim.
This is hardly an unfamiliar idea. The abusive husband who tells the wife he battered the night before that it’s she who makes him do such things, her fault, that she brings out this side of him: he’s a staple of popular culture, in romantic thrillers and crime dramas. It’s the thing every scriptwriter knows to put into the dialogue to signal to the audience that some lowlife is utterly irredeemable, and that the heroine is destined for better things. It’s also a conversation that always comes at the moment when the husband is meant to be atoning, getting himself back in the abused wife’s good graces, when he thinks that he’s apologizing. And as with so many popular-culture tropes, of course, it’s a cliché because it’s true.
That this protective, almost loving side of Trump should be brought out by the figure of an accused abuser of women is a bizarre development, more startling, perhaps, even than what the verbiage of his two statements this weekend suggest about the utter valueless-ness and invisibility of women in his own mental landscape. It shares something too, with the morning-after-abuser’s seductive contrition. He is sober here, controlled, even subdued — because he knows this scenario himself.
What Trump can’t control — in his narcissism and his over-identification with the plight of the abuser — are his own ethics. Four or five times, it sounded as though Trump was going to say the right thing. “I found out about it recently,” he said, without specifying what “it” was, “and I was surprised by it …”— here, we expected the next statement to be something about how domestic abuse can’t be tolerated. But instead Trump repeated, “But we certainly wish him well.” He went on, “It’s a …” — he was using the emphatic (“ā”) pronunciation of the indefinite article, so we expected a strong utterance (It’s a terrible, terrible thing … or It’s a big, big problem …). But instead we got: “It’s obviously a tough time for him,” and “We hope he has a wonderful career.”
What we never got but kept expecting to hear were statements like “… but domestic abuse is never okay.” Or: “… but the White House takes allegations of violence against women seriously.” Trump couldn’t even manage to voice one of those routine, pro forma constructs. For a quarter of a century, Trump has been telling us that all the men he knows who abuse women are “good” people and/or “innocent,” by which he means not that he doesn’t believe that his friends and acquaintances abuse women. He means that he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Maybe it’s time we started believing him.
*This article has been updated to show that Jennie Willoughby is Porter’s second ex-wife, not his first.