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Top White House aide and former Hatch staffer to resign after allegations of abuse

FILE - White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, right, watches as White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, center, hands President Donald Trump a confirmation order for James Mattis as defense secretary, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in the Oval Office of the W
FILE - White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, right, watches as White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, center, hands President Donald Trump a confirmation order for James Mattis as defense secretary, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.
Evan Vucci, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — A top White House aide with direct Utah ties, Rob Porter abruptly announced Wednesday that he will resign his position as President Donald Trump’s staff secretary amid allegations that he abused his two ex-wives.

The Daily Mail reported this week that Porter, who for nearly three years served as chief of staff to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, before joining Trump in January 2017, was both physically and emotionally abusive toward the two women. It published photos provided by Porter’s first wife that purport to show facial injuries caused by a punch on a 2005 vacation to Florence, Italy, and photos of a protective order against Porter that were provided by his second wife.

The online news publication The Intercept published a similar report Wednesday.

The 40-year-old had been widely characterized in media reports as a gatekeeper, working in tandem with Chief of Staff John Kelly to control what information made it to the president's desk and to keep Trump on track.

In a statement, Porter said the allegations are "simply false."

"I took the photos given to the media nearly 15 years ago, and the reality behind them is nowhere close to what is being described," said Porter. "I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims, but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign."

Porter, along with White House policy adviser Stephen Miller, was recently credited for writing Trump’s State of the Union address, and he also made news last week when the Mail, a British tabloid, romantically linked him with White House Communications Director Hope Hicks.

Richard Davis, a professor of political science at Brigham Young University, said Porter was a “rising star,” part of a clique of young Republicans who were viewed as “the next generation of policy leaders.”

Tim Chambless, a longtime University of Utah associate professor/lecturer in political science, noted that Utah billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr. once served as White House staff secretary, under President Richard Nixon.

“The person in that position ... is exercising tremendous discretionary judgment about what is worth the president’s time,” he said.

Such a prominent role might have led to chief of staff, or a deputy cabinet position or a run for office.

“All that is gone now,” Davis said, adding that it will likely be harder for a Mormon to recover from that type of scandal than it was for Trump, who retained much of his popularity in the wake of his crude comments on the "Access Hollywood" tape and allegations of sexual misconduct made by multiple women. "I don’t know where he goes at this point.”

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that internally, Porter was appreciated for having bridged divides between some White House officials. One White House official speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity said that Kelly urged Porter to stay on even after the release of the photos by his first wife.

Jennifer Willoughby, Porter’s second wife, wrote in a text message to the Deseret News that her story had been reported accurately, and that she had no further comment. Attempts to reach Porter and his first wife, Colbie Holderness, were not immediately successful.

Willoughby wrote about her marriage to Porter in an April 2017 post on her blog, saying she filed the protective order against Porter after he punched through the glass on their front door while she was locked inside, and that he once pulled her out of the shower to yell at her.

“He belittled my intelligence and destroyed my confidence,” she wrote.

Holderness told the Mail that Porter kicked, choked and punched her on separate occasions.

After releasing a statement Tuesday characterizing a Mail report as "a vile attack" and a "cynical campaign" against a "decent man," Hatch said in a statement Wednesday that he was “heartbroken” by the allegations.

“In every interaction I’ve had with Rob, he has been courteous, professional and respectful. My staff loved him and he was a trusted adviser.

“I do not know the details of Rob’s personal life,” he continued. “Domestic violence in any form is abhorrent and unacceptable. I am praying for Rob and those involved.”

Hatch has appeared to have outsize influence with the president during Porter’s tenure. The senator, who recently announced that he wouldn’t run again in 2018, successfully pushed Trump to reduce the boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments.

Chambless said Hatch acquired that level of influence despite first backing Jeb Bush, then Marco Rubio, and then Ted Cruz for president. It couldn’t have hurt, he said, that “Hatch was able to position his person, his chief of staff, in the presidential office in the West Wing, controlling the paperwork.”

Prior to working for Hatch, Porter had served as general counsel to Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and chief counsel to Utah Sen. Mike Lee. Lee's office declined comment Wednesday.

Porter served a two-year LDS Church mission to London, and attended Brigham Young University in Provo for one year as an undergrad — running for student-body president before transferring to Harvard. He attended Oxford University in England on a Rhodes Scholarship and returned to Harvard to complete law school.

His father, Roger Porter, is a Harvard professor of business and government who worked in the White House under Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

In the wake of the Mail reports, both Kelly and press secretary Sarah Sanders issued statements defending Porter's character.

"Rob Porter is a man of true integrity and honor,” Kelly said, “and I can't say enough good things about him.”

But late Wednesday, Kelly issued an updated statement.

"I was shocked by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There is no place for domestic violence in our society. I stand by my previous comments of the Rob Porter that I have come to know since becoming Chief of Staff, and believe every individual deserves the right to defend their reputation. I accepted his resignation earlier today, and will ensure a swift and orderly transition."