Did John Kelly think Robert Porter’s talent was more important than alleged abuse?
Robert Porter was a “rising star” in the Trump administration. He was good at what he did, according to White House chief of staff John Kelly.
Oh, and apparently he also beat his two ex-wives. According to two CNN sources, Kelly along with other senior White House staffers, probably knew of allegations against Porter long before the public. Then Kelly reportedly urged Porter not to resign, and praised Porter’s competence.
Kelly’s praise of Porter’s talent and skill at his job, despite lacking key information to efficiently do that job shows what is really important to Kelly.
Skill in the workplace is often used to justify, undermine, or shift focus away from acts of abuse. In politics, the arts, sports, academia, and just about every other profession, talent or perceived ability has protected abusers and predators from punishment justifying the tolerance of their abuse.
Meanwhile, the talent of the women and children they abused — actresses, athletes, students — is expended.
Take for example, James Levine, a prominent American conductor. He was a highly decorated musical director for the Metropolitan Opera for 40 years and held leadership positions in orchestras and at festivals throughout the music world.
Yet, since 1968 it was an apparent “open secret” that he was a pedophile. He was accused of sexually abusing young students — talented in their own right — who worked under his guidance in the pursuit of their musical dreams and aspirations.
Harvey Weinstein, the talented producer and accused predator, had harassment allegations spanning over three decades.
His hush-hush behavior, supported by complicit handlers, forced talented actresses to make an impossible choice: Either stay silent about the abuse or risk the end of their professional lives.
As early as 1998 young girls have been coming forward with accusations of sexual misconduct, but they were not listened to until recently. His abusers were ignored. They were treated as expendable in a system focused more on Olympic glory than the safety of their athletes. Even more haunting, their talent and gender made them most vulnerable to the abuse.
Geoff Marcy, an astronomy professor at UC Berkeley, who some believed had the potential to receive the Nobel Prize also had continued allegations of sexual harassment for a decade before the school took any action.
In the meantime, whispered warnings were the only protections students had from his abuse. In the sciences, where women are dreadfully underrepresented, student safety was not of primary concern.
While endless similar stories of abuse can and should be told, what all of these examples share is that these men’s talent, coupled with their privilege and power made their abuse tolerable to key people that could have acted to prevent or at least stop the abuse one they became aware of it.
In each case there were peers, colleagues and even superiors who were supposedly complicit in the perpetuation of abuse. Conversely, gender and talent made their victims vulnerable.
Initially, senior officials in the White House extended political cover to Rob Porter. Trump continues to defend Porter even after Porter’s own admissions. Most recently, John Kelly offered to resign — and he should.
Zero tolerance policies are necessary but they do little good in a vacuum. Kelly’s willingness to turn the other cheek to Porter’s alleged abuse is ridiculous; it is made more so by the fact that Porter lacked necessary security clearance — serious impediment to a person in his position as White House staff secretary.
In Porter’s case, among others, gender, privilege and talent eclipsed laws and policies when those in power did not enforce the rules. Policies are needed that promote neutral, third-party investigations, conducted outside of an organization or corporation.
All claims must be considered immediately when a concern is raised, by the abused or a bystander of the abused, and there must also be zero tolerance for retaliation.
It could be said that men in positions of power and privilege are targeted because of status and position; it is undoubtedly true that some public figures are the target of legal claims because of their wealth and fame.
Similarly, not all allegations are true and those accused are innocent until proven guilty. Even so, talent, power, and privilege shouldn’t excuse abuse or render it mundane relative to abuser’s accomplishments.
After all, how many of the victim’s talents have been squandered as a result of abuse. The harsh reality is that, in all its forms — sexual, physical and psychological abuse — is harmful.
Dabney P. Evans is an assistant professor in the Hubert Department of global health at Emory University. TyraLynn Frazier is a postdoctoral fellow and adjunct instructor at Emory University.