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Rob Porter's ex-wife says he asked her to "downplay" abuse allegations

Jennie Willoughby, one of the two ex-wives of outgoing White House staff secretary Rob Porter accusing him of domestic abuse, said he asked her to downplay the allegations. On CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" Thursday, Willoughby said she believed that Porter has the capacity to be abusive to White House communications director Hope Hicks, who he is currently dating.

Willoughby told Cooper that Porter asked her to take down a blog post from April 2017 detailing the abuse, and asked her to put out a statement downplaying the allegations. Ultimately, Willoughby said she didn't agree to the statement because she didn't agree with the language. Willoughby said she was in contact with Porter within the last two weeks, but has not been since the Daily Mail broke the allegations Tuesday night. 

"He was asking me to downplay it," Willoughby told Cooper. 

Willoughby also said she does not think Porter has changed, and still has the capacity to be abusive and expressed concern for Hicks.

"It worries me for a lot of reasons. I mean, it definitely worries me because if I'm being frank with you, if he hasn't already been abusive with Hope, he will," she said. 

Willoughby also mentioned she thinks Porter may suffer from depression. She said ultimately, she believes in redemption, and Porter, can be a good man and "can be redeemed."

Porter resigned Wednesday from the White House after Daily Mail published allegations of physical and verbal abuse by Willoughby and Colbie Holderness, his first wife. Holderness told the Daily Mail Porter kicked her, and presented an image of her with a black eye from when she says he hit her while they were on vacation in Italy. Willoughby filed an emergency protective order against Porter after he allegedly refused to cooperate with their separation agreement by leaving the apartment, and cut his hand punching into a glass door. Willoughby told CBS News a third woman, Porter's then-girlfriend, contacted her in February 2016 to say she was in an emotionally abusive relationship with Porter and ask if she had a similar experience, which she had. 

The White House was made aware of the allegations against Porter in November, CBS News has confirmed. But it's unclear exactly who knew what and when. On Thursday, White House deputy press secretary Raj Shah refused to say when chief of staff John Kelly — who along with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders issued a glowing statement about Porter to the Daily Mail — first became aware of the allegations. 

Shah said the White House's response shifted after the image of Holderness emerged. On Wednesday night, Kelly issued another statement condemning domestic violence but saying he stands by his earlier statement about Porter's character. 

Hicks, as CBS News chief White House correspondent Major Garrett has reported, was involved in crafting the initial statements praising Porter. 

As staff secretary, Porter was one of Mr. Trump's closest aides, acting as the conduit for all written information given to the president. Shah confirmed on Thursday that Porter's "background investigation was ongoing." 

Kelly issued a statement to White House staff Thursday, CBS News' Jillian Hughes reports:

Dear Colleagues,

While we are all processing the shocking and troubling allegations made against a former White House staffer, I want you to know that we all take matters of domestic violence very seriously. Domestic violence is abhorrent and has no place in our society.

We understand the shock, pain and confusion that these allegations have caused in our workplace. It is important for me to tell you - you are not alone.  Resources are available here at the White House for anyone who is seeking counseling.

The White House Human Resources Department's Employee Assistance Program provides short-term counseling for employees in the Executive Office of the President. If you have any questions or concerns, you can also reach out to your supervisor or the Office of the Chief of Staff.  

Thank you for all your work and for your continued service to the American people.

John Kelly

CBS News' Gabrielle Ake contributed to this report. 

  • Kathryn Watson

    Kathryn Watson is a politics reporter for CBS News Digital.