Male Wall of Silence

After several months, it seems the #MeToo movement has finally reached the White House. The resignation/firing (depending on who you want to believe) of Rob Porter, President Trump’s Staff Secretary, represents the first instance where a member of the Executive branch has been ousted from his post due to alleged misconduct against women. According to Porter’s two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend who remains anonymous, Porter was physically and verbally abusive to each of them during their respective relationships with him. The evidence supporting these accusations includes a protective order against Porter granted to his second wife and a photo of his first wife with a large black-eye, which she claims she sustained after Porter allegedly punched her in the face.

Most of the media criticism has been focused on President Trump’s predictable defense of Porter - saying Porter “did a very good job” and later bemoaning the fact that “lives are shattered and destroyed by a mere allegation.” He said all of this while never acknowledging the alleged victims of Porter’s violence or speaking out against domestic violence at all. At this point, no one should be surprised that President Trump believes men accused of misconduct over the women accusing them (see: Steve Wynn, Roy Moore, Bill O’Reilly, etc.). Personally, I can no longer muster any more outrage at the President’s perpetual displays of sexism and disregard for women’s pain.

That being said, I find my outrage directed at three other individuals involved in the Rob Porter saga who are supposed to be men of integrity: Chief of Staff John Kelly, Sen. Orrin Hatch, and White House Counsel Don McGahn. These men’s actions and statements regarding the Porter allegations all exemplified the “Male Wall of Silence” that occurs when a man is accused with crimes against women, and that allows men to get away with these crimes time and time again. Similar to law enforcement’s “blue wall of silence,” where police officers opt to protect each other rather than reveal the truth about abuses, there is an impulse among men to preserve the standing of an accused man while sweeping his misdeeds under the rug and/or discrediting the accusers.

Look first at Don McGahn, whose office is responsible for leading the White House employee vetting process. McGahn first learned of the allegations against Porter in January 2017 (13 months ago) but declined to act because he believed Porter was valuable in his role as Staff Secretary. He continued to do nothing in June, when the FBI affirmed the allegations; in September, when he learned that the accusations would delay the security clearance required for Porter to perform his role; and in November, when Porter’s ex-girlfriend contacted him to relay her similar experience with Porter.  Despite multiple credible warnings that the White House was harboring a domestic abuser, McGahn chose to protect Porter and keep him in his position, because hitting women seemingly did not affect Porter’s ability to be effective in his job.    

Look next at John Kelly, the man touted as “the adult in the room” at the White House. Once the abuse allegations were published last week, Kelly’s first response was to issue a statement calling Porter “a man of true integrity,” about whom he “couldn’t say enough good things.” After additional evidence about the abuse emerged, Kelly issued a second statement condemning domestic violence, but followed it by standing by his previous statements about Porter and arguing that “every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation.”  Later news reports allege that Kelly encouraged Porter to “stay and fight” even after the full extent of the alleged abuse became public. By paying lip service to domestic violence victims while defending Porter in the same breadth, you learn all you need to know about John Kelly’s priorities in this situation. Like McGahn, Kelly opted to believe and protect the man of privilege over women who suffered at his hands and had nothing to gain by telling their stories.

Lastly, we come to Sen. Orrin Hatch, Porter’s employer prior to the White House. Hatch’s defense of Porter went one step further than Kelly- praising Porter as a friend and colleague but also calling the accusers “morally bankrupt character assassins.” Before even reading the accusations, Hatch decided that anyone accusing a clean-cut white man must be a liar with no morals. Again, after learning more details about the abuse, Hatch issued a second statement decrying domestic violence, but still containing a defense of Porter and no apology to the women he maligned 24 hours earlier.

Through the actions of these three men, we see the GOP’s Male Wall of Silence in action. This is the reason why domestic violence persists in our society; because the reputations and careers of men are more important than the physical safety of women. This is why women do not report violence against them; because they see their abuser defended while they are branded as liars and opportunists. When men in power diminish domestic violence as a lesser concern, they are sending a clear message to women that a man’s rights will always come first. Essentially, a man’s right to create the best life for himself outweighs a woman’s right to live free of fear and mistreatment.

Shame on Don McGahn and John Kelly. Shame on Orrin Hatch and the Mormon Church leaders who told Porter’s then-wife, Jennie Willoughby, to prioritize his career ambitions over her suffering. Shame on the male dominated power structure that takes a “see no evil, speak no evil” approach to violence against women. Shame on those who would diminish a woman’s basic humanity in favor of political expediency. 

The GOP has long fretted its inability to attract more women to its ranks and the Porter saga is a perfect example of why. If Republican leadership cannot unequivocally denounce violence against women and adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards bad conduct (which so far no one has), then women will increasingly turn towards those candidates who demonstrate that their lives and dignity are worth prioritizing. Come November, women will remember the GOP’s moral failure on this issue when they are in the voting booth. Don’t think they won’t.

What is Steve Bannon’s end game?

You might think I’m crazy, but I’m going to say it: I don’t think this the end for Stephen K. Bannon, not by a long shot. While the majority of my liberal brethren have been gleefully celebrating his demise, I have a different take on the fallout from Bannon’s statements in Michael Wolff’s new book, Fire and Fury: Inside the World of Donald Trump. In the book, Bannon takes multiple swipes at Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Ivanka Trump, labelling the former two’s meeting with Russians at Trump Tower as “treasonous” and “unpatriotic,” and calling the latter “dumb as a brick.” Bannon also intimated that the President’s oldest son and son-in- law were guilty of money laundering.

These statements no doubt undermine the Trump administration and surely enraged the President, but they are also notable for what Bannon did not say. In the excerpts, Bannon does not directly criticize or disparage President Trump himself. While there are some derogatory allusions to then-candidate Trump’s comprehension of issues, Bannon is not on the record calling him “like a child,” “crazy,” or “a f***ing fool,” like other Trump staffers. Moreover, since his ouster from the White House, Bannon has done nothing but praise the President and his agenda in public, including (and especially) since the excerpts from Wolff’s book were made public.

While many Democrats and Republicans (including I’m sure, one Mr. Mitch McConnell) are gloating that Bannon’s loose lips resulted in political harakiri, I think Bannon has a much different outcome in mind. Bannon is anything but a rube when dealing with the media, and no matter how large his ego or deep his frustration with the President, he is not stupid enough to serve up quotes blowing up his relationship with the most powerful man in the world for no reason. My theory is that Bannon’s long-game is to ultimately bring Trump closer to him (Bannon) by undermining Trump’s trust in everyone else around him, including (and especially) his family. The reasons I think this are threefold:

Firstly, It is well known that Trump does not trust the competence of his staff and frequently calls
friends outside the White House to survey them on the performance of various staffers. This includes his family members- for example, it’s an open secret that the President believes Iavanka should do everyone a favor and return to New York. As Kushner and Trump Jr. become further entangled with Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, Bannon’s remarks about their incompetence will be vindicated in the President’s mind. Trump reflexively turns against those who make him look bad, so as Kushner and Junior’s stock goes down in 2018, I predict Bannon’s will creep back up.

Secondly, since Bannon’s departure, the Trump administration is markedly bereft of any senior officials, other than Stephen Miller, who are true believers in the “MAGA” ideology. Rather, the President is almost entirely surrounded by Establishment/moderate figures á la Kushner, John Kelly, and MitchMcConnell who seek to curb his populist rhetoric and undignified conduct. We know from reporting that Trump abhors being controlled and gravitates towards those who share his worldview and indulge his behavior. As his aides seek to further contain him in order to: a) prevent more unforced errors and b) actually get legislation passed, I predict Trump will lash out and reconnect with Bannon, with whom he shares a genuine ideological connection and anti-establishment streak.

Thirdly, Trump always brings people back. Just look at his infamous on-off relationships with Roger Stone and Corey Lewandowski. Trump especially goes back to people who he believes were correct in their actions and/or predictions. Steve Bannon knows this and has been laying the seeds for months. Katy Tur blithely observed that one can easily manipulate President Trump by being nice to him. As I observed above, Bannon never directly criticizes the President in Wolff’s book and has been showering him with support since August. The effect of Bannon calling Trump a “great man” on Wednesday night is already apparent. On Thursday, the President adopted a much more restrained tone in his first public comments on Bannon than in the irate screed the White House put out after the initial excerpts from Wolff’s book were published. Bannon is smart enough not to take the bait by engaging in a public feud with Trump; if Bannon does not pour fuel on the fire, he knows that Trump’s current rage will burn out. As others around the President continue to defy and disappoint him, Bannon understands that Trump will turn back to the person who supports his purpose in the Oval Office. By all accounts, Bannon s a voracious reader, so I’m sure he is familiar with Sun Tzu. His current actions smack of The Art of War: seeing that opportunity exists in the weakness of others within the WhiteHouse and responding successfully to shifting circumstances. Steve Bannon may be persona non grata for the present time, but given everything we know about President Trump, I doubt this is a permanent
state of affairs.