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White House Changes Story on Alleged Abuse By Former Top Aide; Ex-Wife of Former White House Aide Details Abuse Allegations; Porter's Ex-Wife: Rob Is Abusive, He Is Flawed. Aired on 8-9p ET

Aired February 8, 2018 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:04] ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: Good evening.

Today, trying to deal with the fallout from their handling or mishandling of serious allegations of abuse by two ex-wives of Rob Porter, chief of staff John Kelly's right hand man, a White House spokesman said today we all could have done better.

Keeping them honest -- keep that phrase in mind. We all could have done better, because as you're soon see, it conceals as much as it reveals.

In a minute, I'll talk with Jennie Willoughby, who was married to Porter from 2009 to 2013, years of which she says she endured verbal and emotional abuse, a frightening physical confrontation and even filed a temporary ordered of protection.

Porter's first wife Colbie Holderness also divorced him after years, she says, of consistent abuse, including incidents of physical violence. Holderness has even released pictures of a black eye she says she got when Porter hit her. She also says he shoved and choked her.

Porter calls all the allegations against him, quote, outrageous and simply false. He says the reality behind the pictures is, quote, nowhere close to what is being described, and says, quote, I have been transparent and truthful about these vile claims.

Holderness provided the photos and told her story, as did Jennie Willoughby to a British newspaper, and both women had previously told their story to the FBI, which was in the process of doing a background check on Porter for security clearance.

And the FBI told senior officials at the White House, including John Kelly. Multiple sources telling us by last fall, months ago, it was widely known, and let me just repeat that, widely known among top aides, Kelly included, that Rob Porter was facing trouble getting cleared and his ex-wives had discussed spousal abuse.

The White House account of what they knew and when they knew it has changed, to put it mildly. And still, the White House refuses to go into detail of exactly who knee what and when. That phrase, for example, we all could have done better, it conceals a lot when you hear it in its fuller context. Listen.


RAJ SHAH, PRINCIPAL DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think it's fair to say that, you know, we all could have done better over the last few hours or last few days in dealing with this situation.


COOPER: So, did you hear that? Over the few hours or last few days. Meaning since the story in "The Daily Mail" came out early yesterday morning, and with it, the account of Jennie Willoughby and the account and photo of a bruised Colbie Holderness.

Keeping them honest, though, given what our multiple sources are telling us, that's a narrow timeframe to have regrets about, because it's not as if they found out about the allegations by reading "The Daily Mail" story. Again, our sources say that senior aides, including Chief of Staff Kelly have known of these allegations not for hours, not for days but for months. And they certainly knew it on Tuesday when the existence of "The Daily Mail" report became known and when the White House crafted its first statement under Kelly's name, written by aides including communications director Hope Hicks who is dating Rob Porter.

Quote, Rob Porter, it reads, is a man of true integrity and honor, and I can't say enough good things about him. He's a friend, a confidante and a trusted professional. I'm proud to serve alongside him.

Now, again, our multiple sources tell us white Kelly and multiple sources knew about the spousal abuse allegations when they wrote the statement. Exactly what Kelly knew, that's not clear. They knew yesterday when one White House official tells us Kelly was still urging Porter to stay, insisting he could weather the allegations. They knew when Porter resigned. They knew when Kelly put out a second statement just last night.

Quote, I was shocked, he said, by the new allegations released today against Rob Porter. There's no place for domestic violence in our society.

Well, Kelly said he was shocked by the new allegations released yesterday, but keeping him honest, the only thing new about the allegations is they and the photo of Colbie Holderness's black eye, Colbie Holderness's black eye became public. Something Raj Shah danced around. That's a technical term in today's White House briefing.


REPORTER: Can you tell us, Raj, when the White House first became aware of these allegations?

SHAH: Well, I know there's been some reports about the chief of staff. He became fully aware about these allegations yesterday. I'm not going to get into specifics regarding who may have known, what pieces of information, because they were all part of an ongoing background check investigation. REPORTER: You say fully aware. Was he partially aware?

SHAH: I think we all became aware of the news reports that emerged on Wednesday morning, and some of the graphic images.

REPORTER: But did he know any of this back in November?

SHAH: Again, I'm not going to get into the specifics.


REPORTER: Let me ask you if I can. The statement changed from John Kelly yesterday morning to yesterday evening. He said based on new allegations. But what changed yesterday absent a photograph in terms of new allegations?

SHAH: Well, I think what I just referenced. The reports had additional allegations. They had nor information.

REPORTER: Are you saying that the chief of staff of this White House had no idea that Rob Porter's two ex-wives had domestic violence allegations against him when they made those claims to the FBI that John Kelly did not know that? How is that possible the chief of staff did not know that?

SHAH: Well, again, this is part of an ongoing investigation. We trust the background check process, and the chief of staff does not get detailed updates about what may or may not have been alleged. This is a process, it involves thorough investigation, and as I went through the process, it involves looking at not just accusations but denials.


COOPER: OK. So, when asked point blank if John Kelly knew about any of the allegations last fall, Raj Shah, the spokesman, refused to answer. I'm not going to get into specifics. Those are the words he said.

He did not deny that John Kelly and others have known about the spousal abuse allegations for months. That much becomes clear when you listen to what Shah said just moments later when reporters circled back to the topic again.


REPORTER: Follow up on this. Two questions on two different things. I just want to understand, you used the term fully aware. I don't understand what that means. What does that mean John Kelly knew or didn't know? What is --

SHAH: I do know, for instance, that he had not seen images prior to his statement, the statement on Tuesday night.

REPORTER: Did he know of the allegations?

SHAH: Sorry, say that again?

REPORTER: Did he know of some of the allegations?

SHAH: Again, I'm not going to get into the specifics of what may have emerged from the investigation.


COOPER: So, that's what's known in the press as a nondenial denial, which really doesn't do justice of the seriousness of Rob Porter's position, the seriousness of the allegations against him, the seriousness of what two women said they lived through for years and the apparent lack of seriousness with which their allegations were treated by some of the most powerful people in our government.

Again, my interview with one of Rob Porter's ex-wives, Jennie Willoughby, in a moment. But first, CNN's Jim Acosta was in the briefing room when all of the bobbing and weaving was happening. He joins us now.

So, I understand you're getting some new reporting about that briefing today.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Anderson. I was just talking with a source close to the White House who advises this White House on communications strategy from time to time. This source was telling me that the reason why Raj Shah was not giving a full tick-tock or explanation of the timetable in terms of what John Kelly and other top White House staffers knew and when they knew it is because it's, quote, too damning.

That is an indication, Anderson, I think, that they knew full well going into this briefing today that they simply could not give, you know, a detailed explanation as to what John Kelly knew and when he knew it because it would just simply be too damaging to this White House.

Now, obviously, you were playing these clips a few moments ago. It was apparent in the room, and this was Raj Shah's first briefing. He was filling in for Sarah Sanders who was away. But it was -- you could have thrown anybody into that situation to dance around that question the way Raj Shah did earlier today.

It was just blatantly obvious that they were simply trying to cover up that top officials here, including the chief of staff, knew something about Rob Porter's background months ago.

COOPER: Right. I mean, what they were repeatedly falling back on the word play of saying, well, he was fully aware only in the last day, but also that the idea that this is some sort of ongoing background check or security investigation, and therefore, not everything was known or things wouldn't be known to the chief of staff. I mean, that just doesn't make sense.

ACOSTA: Exactly. And when they received this information months ago, they had a decision to make, Anderson, and they chose not to make the decision that Rob Porter had to go. That his security clearance was not going to happen, raj shah was also making this distinction today that Rob Porter was continuing to work with an interim security clearance. While he's working with an interim security clearance because that background check process was dredging up trouble.

And so I think that is why you heard Raj, and Anderson, I think the most incredible thing that happened today besides that really obvious dodging of the question on Kelly and what he knew, was the fact that he acknowledged -- Raj Shah acknowledged that the White House had made mistakes in handling all this. I asked the question, you know, Rob Porter released a statement yesterday afternoon, saying that he took a photograph of this black eye. And so, how could this white house go out and put these statements with glowing praise of the staff secretary? It just doesn't make any sense.

And, Anderson, I think this just goes back to what we have been talking about. They thought they could weather the storm, but obviously, when you're covering up domestic abuse, it's a storm you can't weather -- Anderson.

COOPER: Also, I mean, with all due respect, the idea that it takes -- it has to take a photograph of an actual black eye that becomes public, nonetheless, in order for minds to be changed, I mean, that says a lot about where we're at.

ACOSTA: And I think that explains why this press briefing that was supposed to happen at 1:00 this afternoon was delayed until 2:30 and then it was delayed until 3:15, and we waited until after 3:30 for this briefing to happen. I think they were just fumbling around and scrambling around to come up with some sort of answer. And when they were throwing up the phrase fully aware that John Kelly was only fully aware yesterday, it just is an evasive, obvious falsehood.

And, you know, I think if you have inclinations that there was domestic violence in your staff secretary's past months ago, you don't need a photograph.


ACOSTA: And as Raj Shah was saying, they were believing the defense that Rob Kelly was putting forward as much as they were believing these allegations.

[20:10:05] The denials were believed as much as the allegations, Raj Shah was saying, they're taking as seriously.

And I think that goes to the issue here that they were simply just not taking it as seriously as they should have -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes. Jim Acosta from the White House, thanks very much.

Joining us now is Jennie Willoughby. She was married to Rob Porter from 2009 to 2013. She's a writer and a speaker.

Thanks so much for being with us. I know it's not an easy thing.

JENNIE WILLOUGHBY, EX-WIFE OF ROB PORTER: Thank you. Thank you, Anderson.

COOPER: Why are you coming forward? Why are you speaking out?

WILLOUGHBY: So I had no intention of speaking out and making these particular details of my marriage public. I feel as though the opportunity to share my experience with other people and talk about the -- the shame and the guilt that's associated with it, and then also the healing and resiliency that comes after you have been able to step out.

COOPER: You hope it helps other people?

WILLOUGHBY: It was really important for me, yes, to get that message out to other people.

COOPER: This isn't a vendetta against your former husband?

WILLOUGHBY: No, and I tried very much to make that clear when I was speaking with other media outlets, that I have nothing against Rob. I have long since done the healing and forgiveness that I need to do, and I seek no harm for him.

COOPER: Let me take you back. You were married, the marriage started I think in November of 2009.

WILLOUGHBY: That's correct.

COOPER: The abuse, the verbal abuse started on your honeymoon.

WILLOUGHBY: Even sooner than that, actually. We had a delayed honeymoon, so within the first probably two weeks. I was already getting belittled and nit-picked and sort of systematically torn apart for small things, and seeing glimpses of his anger.

COOPER: You said he was cursing, he would curse at you.

WILLOUGHBY: The cursing, the actual cursing and insults didn't start until the honeymoon, which was about a month or so after we were married.

COOPER: Had you gotten any hint of that during the dating process?

WILLOUGHBY: You know, I hadn't. He is quite charming and chivalrous and romantic, and the way that he described his previous marriage, it all added up to how he was behaving when he was with me. And so the only possible inclination that I had to a glimpse into his anger was at one point, a month or so before we were married, when he was particularly impatient. We were late for an appointment to meet with somebody, and it just seems like a little bit disproportionate to the situation. But even that wasn't a red flag for what I experienced ultimately.

COOPER: It was just a few months after your honeymoon in June, I think, of 2010, that you actually filed for a temporary protective order.


COOPER: Can you talk about the incident that motivated that?

WILLOUGHBY: Yes. Rob and I had been seeing a marriage counselor, and together had drafted a separation agreement, primarily because of his anger, and the verbal and emotional abuse. So, at that time, he was meant to be living in our home that we had recently purchased. He came to the apartment where I was staying and refused to leave, and after he did ultimately leave and I closed the door and locked it behind him, he returned a moment later and punched in the glass on the front door.

And because I did know that his anger was unpredictable, I didn't know what he would do next. And I --

COOPER: You were frightened.

WILLOUGHBY: Yes, I was scared.

COOPER: And you called the police.

WILLOUGHBY: And I did call the police.

COOPER: Was it the police who recommended the protective, temporary protective order?

WILLOUGHBY: Yes, even in that moment, you know, when my husband had just punched in the glass on my door, and made me scared, I didn't realize the extent of what I was dealing with, and thankfully, there was a police officer who sort of counseled me. You know, you didn't think he would punch in a window and now he did. So, you don't want to know -- you really don't know what could happen in the future.

And with that counsel, and ultimately, counseling with a Mormon bishop, the lay clergy in the Mormon Church, I decided to file the temporary protective order.

COOPER: You had written in a blog post about the counseling with the bishop, and one of the things the bishop had sort of suggested to you or mentioned to you is do you want to file this temporary protective order because of the impact it might have on your husband's career?


COOPER: How did you feel when that was brought up?

WILLOUGHBY: I was taken aback. It seemed sort of not the priority in the situation that I was discussing. I hold no ill will towards that bishop. I think he was making a decision the best he could with the information he had.

But ultimately, I think it shows some of the nuances of what someone goes through when they're in an abusive relationship that because I was unable to clearly articulate the fear that I had and to clearly articulate even some of the more extreme forms of emotional or verbal abuse that I was experiencing, he really didn't understand the severity of the situation and was able to make that as a recommendation.

[20:15:22] COOPER: One of the things the -- you didn't know his ex- wife, his first wife.


COOPER: So, you didn't know the allegations, what she had said, the choking, the assaults.

WILLOUGHBY: No, I was unaware of that add all.

COOPER: All of which, of course, he denied and continues to deny. I'm wondering, at a certain point, though, you were arguing and you said there was a physical -- I don't know how to describe it, confrontation of sorts.

WILLOUGHBY: Yes. The first and perhaps the only physical abuse that I suffered was after an argument where we were both yelling in each other's faces, which unfortunately, had become the norm in our marriage, and I removed myself from the situation to take a shower, to cool down, to disengage from the situation. He came to the shower and opened the door and pulled me out to continue yelling at me.

COOPER: He put his hands on you and pulled you out?


COOPER: Was that a startling moment for you?

WILLOUGHBY: I think up until that moment, I didn't realize that I was in an abusive marriage. I think that sounds almost ridiculous coming out of my mouth given how I can speak about it and remember things now. But I don't know, it was until that moment that I realized I was with a man who was capable of something like that.

COOPER: I think so many women will relate to what you just said, and one of the things you wrote, you wrote about, you talked about how when you would go outside, people would compliment your husband and say how lucky you were to have a guy like that. And sort of his public face was an incredibly impressive one.

Did that add to that sense of not being able to believe what was going on at home?

WILLOUGHBY: So I mean, I think you kind of hit on the crux of how I ended up here in your studio, right? Like there's somebody who was able to rise professionally and have the accolades from so many, and even in the face of what's currently unfolding, to still have the support of so many people in the White House and former colleagues, that the idea that he could be so different seems to escape people.

And yet, everyone in their daily lives has a different personality for different situations. I think this, for Rob, was just a really extreme and toxic version of that.

COOPER: You had said that strangers complimented him to me every time we went out, but in my home, the abuse was insidious, the threats were personal, the terror was real. That's what it felt, terror.

WILLOUGHBY: It was a low grade constant terror of not knowing what I might do to set something off. What mood he would have. There weren't any explicit threats, but I frequently felt threatened.

COOPER: There was one other thing you wrote, and then I want to take a break for a moment. You wrote, if he was -- about why you stayed, if he was a monster all the time, perhaps it would be easier to leave, but he could be kind and sensitive, and so I stayed. He cried and apologized, and so I stayed. He offered to get help and even went to a few counseling session and therapy groups, and so I stayed.

WILLOUGHBY: Yes. You know, this is a question I specifically wrote that because that's a question I'm asked a lot, is why did you stay if he was a, quote/unquote, monster? And the reality is he's not a monster. He is an intelligent, kind, chivalrous, caring, professional man. And he is deeply troubled and angry and violent. I don't think those things are mutually exclusive.

COOPER: And the people he works with may not have seen that side of him at all.

WILLOUGHBY: Of course not. Of course not. It's reserved for the most intimate and also vulnerable moments in his life.

COOPER: We're going to take a quick break and continue talking. We'll be right back.


[20:22:19] COOPER: We're talking to Jennie Willoughby, one of two women alleging spousal abuse at the hands of former White House staff secretary, Rob Porter.

Porter's first wife, who you hadn't met, Colbie, reached out to you in 2017, after the FBI had interviewed both of you. When you started to hear her story, when you actually met, I'm wondering what that experience was like. Because I mean, she's alleging numerous acts of physical abuse, of choking, you know, being pushed down on a bed, held down and a knee placed on her, and obviously, the photographs of her with a black eye.

WILLOUGHBY: Yes. First of all, I just absolutely am in awe of her and her bravery and willingness to share that as publicly as she has. When we met in March of 2017, after we had both had to sort of rehash our experiences with the FBI, it was -- it was almost like a longtime validation, because obviously, being in that relationship, I knew on some level that it wasn't me, and that Colbie had to have experienced similar things, even though Rob manipulated the story of his marriage about her several times. I knew it had to be similar.

So when I met her and she described the insults and the systematic tearing down of everything that we knew to be true about ourselves, I just immediately thought, oh, I wasn't alone, you know, because deep down, I had known that and --

COOPER: That must have been an extraordinary feeling to realize, wait a minute, this is not me. This is -- this has happened before.

WILLOUGHBY: Yes, and I think a lot of people in abusive relationships because of the constant insidious breaking down of that confidence and of that even knowledge of sense of self, start to believe that it really is something that they're doing or something that they in some way deserved because of their choices.

And for me, I think I just sort of accepted it once it became the norm, and I lost a lot of confidence and just accepted that's what it was. And it took years to get past that point, but it took meeting Colbie and really hearing her story and sharing my story and us both going, yes, yes, that happened to me, too, before I could really recognize the magnitude of it.

COOPER: When you saw the photographs of her with the black eye, which Rob Porter said he took the photos and that the story behind it is different than what she's alleging, Colbie says actually she has now said well, yes, he did take the photos because she actually made him take the photos as sort of an act of contrition after she says that he punched her.

[20:25:12] But I'm just wondering, when you saw, actually saw those photographs, did she show them to you?

WILLOUGHBY: She didn't show them to me. When we met in March, she did tell me that they existed.

COOPER: So this -- seeing the photo said is new to you.


COOPER: I'm wondering how that -- how that impacted you.

WILLOUGHBY: You know, I would be lying if I said I didn't feel lucky, that the abuse that I endured wasn't like that. Even when she told me some of the things that she experienced, it was almost like an abstract reality until I'm seeing it and hearing her accounts of it now.

COOPER: And then another woman reached out to you more recently. In 2016, is that right?

WILLOUGHBY: Yes, that's correct.

COOPER: So, was that after the FBI or before?

WILLOUGHBY: No, that was well before. I was contacted by a woman, via Facebook. I don't know her. We don't have any mutual friends, in February of 2016.

I was traveling internationally, so I didn't correspond with her very much, but she essentially reached out to me, saying that she was in a relationship with Rob. She had been for several years and was experiencing abuse and feeling crazy, and felt that the people she had shared with didn't believe her and she was isolated and alone.

And she wanted to know if she was. Am I alone, am I crazy, I think were her exact questions?

COOPER: Was she looking to get out of the relationship?

WILLOUGHBY: It seemed in her correspondence with me that she had recently ended the relationship and was just feeling the extreme deflation that comes with that. You have been exhausted and on this heightened adrenaline for so long in a relationship like that. I think she was sort of feeling that drain and that exhaustion.

However, I did find out a couple months later when she contacted me again that they actually were still in a relationship.

COOPER: When the FBI came to you, was it -- did you -- did they start asking questions? Did they know about the allegations of abuse? Or was that something that --

WILLOUGHBY: They didn't ask me specific questions about abuse. Having never done a security background interview that way, I don't know if there were specific targeted questions, but it seems to me that they did a fairly standard background check and that they were asking me to describe his character, asking me to describe anything that I thought might be problematic in his position, and they did ask what was the nature of our relationship, and they did ask if I felt that he would be different professionally versus privately.

And I was very candid and frank and detailed with them about my marriage.

COOPER: You had been -- you were in touch with Porter even after the divorce. You maintained would you say cordial relations?


COOPER: Yes. Would you see him or talk on the phone?

WILLOUGHBY: I think once or twice over the four years, we probably saw each other. Yes, we saw each other at least once or twice.

COOPER: Did he know the FBI talked to you and was he concerned about that at all?

WILLOUGHBY: Yes. So, he -- because we were in contact, he had actually let me know that the FBI was going to be contacting me and got the information so that they could.

COOPER: Just standard procedure?

WILLOUGHBY: Yes, and leading up to the interview, he asked me what I intended to say. And what types of things I would say about him. And I was honest with him about what I planned to say.

And after the FBI interview, he wanted to know the same things, what types of things are they asking, what types of things that I say. And so, Rob was aware of what I shared with the FBI.

COOPER: Was he concerned about what his first wife said? WILLOUGHBY: Yes.


Do you think his past actions should prevent him from working in the White House?

WILLOUGHBY: That's such a difficult question for me to answer. And I have been asked it multiple times and mulling it over, and it's sort of a greater question, I think, for society today. You know, can we separate a man from his mistakes, if we want to call it that? Or can we separate a man's work from his private life?

And for me, especially now that I'm feeling more empowered that I have told my story, that I'm sharing details that even my closest family and friends didn't know, and I'm sharing that publicly, I'm feeling more and more empowered that we need to have a conversation that anyone who is manipulative or abusive of power or abusive in any way, is held accountable regardless of what they contribute.

And it's really concerning to me that that's what the discussion has been, is well, but what did Rob contribute? What was his work? As opposed to you know, this is a troubled man with issues that needs help.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: I want to continue the conversation for another break, if that's OK.


COOPER: We're going to take a short break. I want to ask about reaction to what the White House has been saying about all this. Well stay tuned.


COOPER: Back now with Jennie Willoughby. I want to ask you about a couple things the White House has said and about what they have done or have not done. Chief of staff John Kelly said Porter is, "A man of true integrity and honor". That's what he said earlier yesterday. They now say they only became fully aware of the allegations yesterday, and then when asked today about what changed between when the first statement was made and a later statement, they said it was, "The full nature of the allegations, particularly the images".

Do you think it should have taken the White House seeing images of Colbie bruised and battered to come up with a different statement?

WILLOUGHBY: You know, I feel like that's a speculative thing that I can't really answer just because of my closeness to it and the nature of it, but I do feel as though knowing Rob the way that I do, he probably is able to even -- even if his clearance hadn't gone through, and they knew that it was because of problems in his marriage, I think he was probably able to spin it in such a way that it was minimized, that it was downplayed. And I generally believe that chief of staff Kelly thought that it was lesser than it was, and seeing those photographs, I wish that my interview would have been enough, but seeing those photographs sort of solidified that no, this is in fact an issue.

COOPER: Yes, it still not clear, because the White House won't answer what General Kelly knew when he knew it and to what extent he knew about the reports, the allegations that both of you had made. There's this new statement out from General Kelly where he said he was shocked by the, "New allegations" and there's "No place for domestic violence". Is it important to you that somebody like General Kelly believes your story?

WILLOUGHBY: It's important to me in general that anyone who's coming forward with a story like that is believed up front. That it's not on the burden of proof for me or anyone else to justify those claims.

[20:35:04] And that the conversation around abuse or assault or even misogyny in general doesn't automatically turn to, well, he's really great. Could it possibly be that she's exaggerating or she's not telling the truth or it's not as bad as they're making it out to be, because there's very little evidence that any woman would bring that kind of scrutiny upon themselves to share these types of details. I didn't ask for this. I would never have shared these types of details as publicly if the media hadn't come to me with this moment to do that.

COOPER: The statement that Rob Porter issued reads, "These outrageous allegations are simply false. I've been transparent and truthful about these vile claims but I will not further engage publicly with a coordinated smear campaign". Is this a coordinated smear campaign?

WILLOUGHBY: No. No. I have -- I had no intentions of disparaging Rob. I had been in contact with Rob a lot in the last two weeks as he gave me some warning that stories might break, and knew that people might be sniffing around my blog post.

COOPER: He warned you that this might come out.


COOPER: Was he concerned about that?

WILLOUGHBY: Yes, he had asked me multiple times to take down my Instagram post.

COOPER: You did a blog post where you hadn't named any names.


COOPER: You just talked in general about your experience.

WILLOUGHBY: Right. And I had done so with the intention of reaching people who may need to hear that message and see what it's like on the other side, you know, to have that hope. And Rob was aware of that post when it originally went out a year ago, a little less than a year ago, and again asked me to take it down two weeks ago. I think in anticipation of me being questioned about it. COOPER: Did he ever ask you to deny?

WILLOUGHBY: No, we were in contact, even a couple days ago, as he was asking me to release a statement about my blog post, and I went back and forth with him for an hour or so about what language I would be comfortable with, and ultimately, the language he asked I wasn't comfortable with. And he came out with that statement less than an hour later.

COOPER: Can you say what he wanted to this?

WILLOUGHBY: I don't remember the exact wording, but it was something along the lines of the post does not accurately depict my marriage. And there were some other things that were associated with it, and that just didn't feel right to me because it does accurately depict my marriage. And another thing that he wanted me to say was that I had taken some liberties with this therapeutic post, which it was for me, that I'd taken liberties with that therapeutic post. And when I thought about it, I didn't. The things that I said were factual statements.

COOPER: It does sound like he was asking you to deny what you had --

WILLOUGHBY: He was asking me to downplay it.


WILLOUGHBY: And he was asking me to emphasize more the relationship that he and I have now as opposed to what I experienced in our marriage.

COOPER: Have you talked to him in the last couple days?

WILLOUGHBY: I haven't. I haven't spoken to him since that conversation.

COOPER: The -- Rob Porter is now in a relationship with the White HousePress Secretary Hope Hicks. Do you think he's changed?

WILLOUGHBY: I don't think he's changed.

COOPER: Does that worry you?

WILLOUGHBY: 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. And particularly now that he's under a lot of stress and scrutiny. That's when the behaviors come out. And if he hasn't already, he will.

COOPER: You think he can't -- he has not gotten help. He can't stop at this point?

WILLOUGHBY: I don't think that he has done the self-reflective work to acknowledge this issue. I don't think that he has really taken the time to deconstruct why it is that he behaves this way, and until he's able to do that, I don't know that he has control over it. COOPER: So you're saying you're worried about Hope Hicks.

WILLOUGHBY: I'm worried.

COOPER: The -- I read part of this before, but you'd said that after three years of marriage, you were a shell of a person, a muted version of the woman I had been when I met Rob. Can you talk to me about recovery for this? Because there's a lot of women right now who are in situations, trapped in situations --

WILLOUGHBY: Men and women.

COOPER: Me and women, don't feel they can get out. And I'm wondering how you moved through it and what your message is to them?

WILLOUGHBY: Thank you for asking that. I think that's one of the primary messages that I want to get out, and since I did have to share my story, and it's the idea that when you're in that relationship, just the idea of sharing those details is exhausting and overwhelming.

[20:40:02] And it doesn't necessarily take one instance to convince someone to get out. Over the spectrum of abuse, the instances start to run together. And so my message is one of, if you feel as though your personality has been muted, as though your livelihood is not at the level that it had been or that it could be, something is wrong in your relationship. Something is toxic in your relationship. And I don't know that we need to attribute blame and call one person an abuser and one person a victim or one person a monster and one person a victim. I think it's a matter of recognizing that something is severely broken, and going to get the help that both of you need.

And for somebody who's on the receiving end of any type of abuse, where they're starting to feel like they're losing their sense of self, the moment of recovery comes when you recognize that you have no control over that person's behavior. And what you have control over is your own choices and how you react to them.

COOPER: You don't use that term victim.

WILLOUGHBY: I don't. I don't feel like I was a victim for a couple of reasons. The first is, I chose Rob. You know, and subconsciously, whether I can pinpoint it or not, I chose him. And so there's something that I need to work through in that. I'm not saying that it was my fault that I ended up in that marriage, but I acknowledge that there was something in me that allowed me to accept it as long as I did.

And so in that way, no, I'm not a victim. And Rob is abusive, and Rob is flawed and definitely has anger. I think he might also suffer from depression and the anger is the outlet for that, but he's not a monster. And he's not an abuser in that that is what he should be defined as. I don't believe that.

COOPER: Even though he was -- you say he was abusive.

WILLOUGHBY: Yes. COOPER: And his former wife says he was abusive?

WILLOUGHBY: Yes. And I think the reason that I'm able to say that and feel that is because ultimately, I do believe in redemption, and I do believe that if or when Rob is ready to do the work that he needs to do, he can be -- he can be a good man and he can be redeemed. And that's not on me and not on me to own, and I don't want to seek to judge or to hurt somebody who is in that position because God forbid somebody judge me and the mistakes that I've made, and in the life choices that had brought me to where I am.

COOPER: Jennie Willoughby, thanks so much.

WILLOUGHBY: Thank you.

COOPER: Is there anything else you want to say?

WILLOUGHBY: No, no. Thank you for having me.

COOPER: OK, thank you, Jennie.

We'll continue the conversation with our panel in just a moment. We'll be right back.


[20:44:59] COOPER: Moments ago, I spoke with Jennie Willoughby, who does not describe her ex-husband Rob Porter, is not a monster, she says, but he was an abuser to her, and now she fears he may still be to Hope Hicks whom he now is seeing. There's one of the things she said about the conversations they had in a recent days.


WILLOUGHBY: He was asking me to release a statement about my blog post, and I went back and forth with him for an hour or so about what language I would be comfortable with. And ultimately, the language that he asked I wasn't comfortable with. And he came out with that statement less than an hour later.

COOPER: Can you say what he wanted to this?

WILLOUGHBY: I don't remember the exact wording, but it was something along the lines of the post does not accurately depict my marriage. And there were some other things that were associated with it, and that just didn't feel right to me because it does accurately depict my marriage. And another thing that he wanted me to say was that I had taken some liberties with this therapeutic post, which it was for me, that I'd taken liberties with that therapeutic post, and when I thought about it, I didn't. The things that I said were factual statements.


COOPER: Joining us now, CNN political commentator, Amanda Carpenter, former communications director for Republican Senator Ted Cruz. Jen Psaki, a former White House communications director for President Obama, and CNN political director David Chalian.

Amanda, you heard what Jennie Willoughby said. I wonder what you took away from it.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: The takeaway from that sound bite is that someone acting as a representative of the White House asked a woman to change her truth about the abuse that she suffered. And this isn't just about a staff secretary. This is about the culture of abuse that continues to permeate within this White House that we all were well aware of, even during the campaign.

Aides to Donald Trump have gone forth and told the press that they viewed it as a litmus test of whether people would be willing to defend Donald Trump in the aftermath of the "Access Hollywood" tapes, which let's be clear, on those tapes, he talked favorably about sexual assault. So that is a job requirement in this White House.

So no, I'm not surprised when people look the other way when they learn these facts about Mr. Porter. But the reason why it should concern everyone is not a staff issue, is that we should want the best of America working from the White House. It is a reflection of us, and what it has turned into is an amplification of the worst of Donald Trump.

COOPER: Jen, I mean, I'd love to hear your thoughts on what Jennie Willoughby was saying and also how the White House has responded to this, because they're clearly just not answering when John Kelly knew about these allegations and the extent to which he knew. I mean our reporting is that he knew about it months ago.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Anderson, I'll say it was hard to watch that interview and watch the last 24 hours of the White House's response and not feel angry and sickened as an American, as a woman, as a human being in terms of how this has all been handled. And what was striking to me from the clip you just played is the fact that this is a person who is still trying to manipulate her, just over the last couple days and weeks. And that is really something that you see in patterns of abuse. So to me, this is much larger. There are huge holes in the White House's story line about the timeline here. And having been through a background check and having been through processes where staff have been fired or not been let through to a security clearance, there's just simply no way they didn't know in the process. That's not how it works.

But the larger issue here, I think, is in the last 48 hours, they did know all the facts. They knew all the specific details. Yes, they saw the pictures, and they still defended him. They didn't fire him. They defended his integrity and his honesty. And as Amanda said, that speaks to the culture of the White House, what you're saying is acceptable. And for me, for somebody who served for eight years, for people who served for Republican and Democratic administrations, it's really disheartening and upsetting to see this kind of behavior be accepted from that building.

COOPER: David, I mean, what do you make of the White House response? I mean is this something that they're just going to barrel through? I mean clearly, at the press briefing today, they just didn't answer questions. They just said, oh, there's an ongoing background investigation, which is just, you know, a ridiculous answer, that there somehow there's this rolling year-long ongoing security review of Rob Porter that seems never ending, and that no information can be discussed before that is concluded. That's just not what we're hearing.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, the thmbling reaction from the White House became all the more stark in just seeing the strength of this woman, Jennie, and the way that she is able to speak her truth and tell her story, when you compare that against the just keystone cops situation going on at the White House. Certainly, culturally, as Jen and Amanda were saying, but politically, it's not sustainable where they are right now. This is not -- what Raj Shah said today, Anderson, is not going to be the last word from the White House on this story, I guarantee you that.

[20:50:10] COOPER: We're going to take a quick break. We're going to continue the conversation just a moment.


COOPER: We're talking about my conversation with Jennie Willoughby, including the extent which the White House knew about her allegations against Rob Porter, in this portion she talks about why chief of staff John Kelly may have known less about the details than when he might expect.


WILLOUGHBY: The way that I do, he probably is able to even if his clearance hadn't gone through and they knew that it was because of problems in his marriage, I think he was able to spin it in such a way it was minimized, that it was down played and I generally believe that chief of staff Kelly thought that it was lesser than it was and seeing those photographs sort of solidified that no this is in fact an issue.


COOPER: Amanda, does General Kelly have the credibility to remain in his post? I mean if were -- as the reporting, he knew of these allegations as far back as last fall?

CARPENTER: In a traditional White House, of course not. But this is Donald Trump's White House. And Donald Trump seems to turn a blind eye to these kinds of issues. I mean locker room talk. We mean, we know about the allegations from his first wife, Ivana when his lawyer Michael Cohen came out and said well -- when she talked about being raped in her deposition, she didn't mean raped in the literal or criminal sense. I mean we're talking about the White House that has a long and deep history of revising statements of changing the truth to make themselves look better. And let's keep in mind, the story from a week ago where Michael Cohen was discovered to pay hush money to a woman who had sex on camera for money, Stormy Daniels. And so this isn't an isolated issue when it comes to Donald Trump. It's a disturbing pattern of behavior that keeps happening but moreover what is really concerning is the constant pressure to get a woman like jenny to not believe her own truth. To not believe what has happened to her or at least lie to people about it.

I mean and a representative from the White House essentially asked her to lie to FBI investigators for a background check to preserve his own self-interest. There's a reason why we have security clearances and background checks. It's to make sure that the people who are in- charge of our government have sound judgment and aren't, you know, making bad decisions for self-interest reasons.

[20:55:12] COOPER: Jen, it's also important to point out, I mean there is a trail -- I mean people talk about speaking their truth. There's also just truth and there's a trail of evidence here. You know, there's not only the photographs. There's this temporary protective order that Jennie got and it describes the incident that Rob Porter punching his hand through a plate glass window at a property he wasn't supposed to be at based on a separation agreement they had both come to and a police officer encouraging her to get an order of protection.

PSAKI: That's right. There's quite a bit of evidence. And as she said during your interview Anderson, it is unlikely and uncommon for women to come out and speak about domestic abuse if it was not actually the case and the truth. There's also the fact that the process that typically works for a background check is that the FBI goes through the process. They can certainly flag things. They would be flagged for DOJ. DOJ would then bring them to the White House counsel.

So that is not a process that needs to be concluded. And some of the holes in their story and some the challenges or issues with how Raj Shah handled it today, where that they are leaning into a process that doesn't explain or justify their decision making. And they're suggesting that things like, the fact that he may have been abusive before he took his job at the White House is going to be justification and it believes me, it's not going to be. Or the fact that perhaps it wasn't as bad of an abuse as we thought, that that as justification. What level of domestic abuse is acceptable? What time line --

COOPER: Right.

PSAKI: -- is acceptable? And hose are questions that real people are going to be asking.

COOPER: Well Raj Shah today, said and I wish I could had the quote on this I wrote it down earlier, that all of these allegations occurred long before it came to the White House --

PSAKI: Right.

COOPER: Well this girlfriend who is contacted Jennie and Colbie, the two ex-wives, that was recent. I mean that was not a long time ago, that was just in the last --

PSAKI: And why does it matter?


COOPER: Right, well yes of course. Coming up, more of my conversations, one of the former White House aide Rob Porter's ex- wives. What Jennie Willoughby told me about abuse that she went through in their marriage and why she's speaking out now.