Metro

Rob Porter was ‘quintessential golden boy’ from Belmont now accused of abuse

FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2017 file photo, White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter, center, hands President Donald Trump a confirmation order for James Mattis as defense secretary, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, as White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, right, watches. Porter is stepping down following allegations of domestic abuse by his two ex-wives. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci/Associated Press
Then-White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter (center) handed President Donald Trump a confirmation order for James Mattis as defense secretary, in the Oval Office of the White House as then-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus (right) watched.

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On campus, he was known as the quintessential golden boy, the clean-cut son of a Harvard professor who would follow in his father’s footsteps by earning a Rhodes scholarship and working in the White House.

Now, classmates who knew Rob Porter at Harvard and Harvard Law School say they are reeling from the revelations that Porter, until Wednesday a top adviser to President Trump, has been accused of domestic violence by his two ex-wives.

The accusations, some said, have shattered the image they had of Porter as a straight-arrow student who was the picture of Harvard propriety — someone who was “charming, bright, engaging, and handsome with impeccable Brahmin . . . cred,” as Nikki Usher, a member of the Harvard class of 2003, wrote on Twitter this week.

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“The reason it’s shaking a lot of people I know is that, if it’s Rob who was capable of this, who else are we missing?” Usher, who had several classes with Porter and was active with him in Republican politics on campus, said in an interview.

Courtesy of Colbie Holderness
Rob Porter's ex-wife Colbie Holderness is pictured in a photo from 2005, when she says Porter gave her a black eye on an Italy trip.

“Maybe more so than anything else, it reminds you that this stuff is happening, and you can’t always see it, and you don’t know what’s happening behind closed doors — and that’s maybe more upsetting to me.”

Porter’s downfall has engulfed the White House in controversy amid reports that chief of staff John F. Kelly, who initially defended Porter, knew of the allegations before they were made public.

Despite his title of staff secretary, and low profile, Porter was a key gatekeeper in the West Wing and worked closely with Kelly to impose order on Trump’s White House, overseeing the flow of paperwork to Trump’s desk, traveling with the president, and helping to craft last month’s State of the Union address.

Porter has denied abusing his former wives, calling the accusations “a coordinated smear campaign,” despite the publication of photos of his first wife with a black eye that she says he gave her during a vacation in Florence, Italy.

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On Friday, Trump, who has himself been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, said he learned of the allegations against Porter recently and was surprised by them.

“Hopefully, he will have a great career ahead of him,” Trump said. “We absolutely wish him well. He did a very good job while he was at the White House.”

A Belmont native, Porter, 40, seemed destined for a career in Washington.

His mother, Ann R. Porter, who died last year, worked in the Senate, and his father, Roger B. Porter , served in the Ford, Reagan, and first Bush administrations and has been on the faculty at the Kennedy School of Government since 1977.

While a student at Belmont High School, Porter interned for Senator John Chaffee, a Rhode Island Republican. At Harvard, he relished being a conservative on a liberal campus.

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He was president of the Harvard Republicans and chairman of Harvard Students for Bush during the 2000 presidential election.

He also took two years off after his freshman year to work as a Mormon missionary in London, where he held debates, presented lectures, and organized seminars about the Mormon faith, according to the Harvard Gazette.

“I think it’s important for the character and soul of America to create caring people, people who get involved and help individuals in their lives,” Porter told the Harvard Crimson in 2000, in an article headlined “The Zealot,” about his tireless work on George W. Bush’s presidential campaign.

“He’s ushering in an era of personal responsibility,” Porter said about Bush in the article, which described him hanging a large “George W. Bush for President” sign over the fireplace in his dorm. “That resonates with me.”

During his senior year, in 2001, Porter, like his father before him, was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford University. In a Globe article that year, Porter credited his success to his “family, professors, teachers, and mentors.”

“I’ve had a lot of mentors and people who have been interested and helpful and useful in my life,” Porter said. “I’m just thrilled.”

Ron Kaufman, a longtime member of the Republican National Committee from Massachusetts, said Friday that he recalls Porter working in 2002 for the gubernatorial campaign of Mitt Romney, another Harvard-educated Mormon from Belmont.

“I don’t know anybody who isn’t honestly and truly dumbfounded and sad,” Kaufman said. “Great family.”

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In 2008, Porter graduated from Harvard Law School, where he was academic chair of the conservative Harvard Federalist Society, and editor-in-chief of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy.

Porter met his first wife, Colbie Holderness, at a Mormon student event when she was a freshman at Wellesley College and president of the Wellesley Alliance for Life, an antiabortion group, according to news reports.

Holderness, who married Porter in 2003, has said that Porter kicked her in the thigh during a fight on their honeymoon and that, on other occasions, he struck her in the face, threw her on a bed, choked her, and pushed her down.

The couple divorced in 2008.

Jennifer Willoughby, who was married to Porter from 2009 to 2013, told CNN that she was subjected to deeply disturbing emotional abuse from her ex-husband and that, during a fight, he “grabbed me from the shower by my shoulders up close to my neck and pulled me out to continue to yell at me.”

“Everyone loved him. People commented all the time how lucky I was,” Willoughby wrote in a blog post last year. “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.”

Melissa Langsam Braunstein, who was at Harvard with Porter, wrote Friday on the Federalist Society website that she was “gobsmacked to learn that the guy I remember as always smiling and friendly, who always seemed like he had everything going on, has been accused of abuse by not one, but two ex-wives.”

“Rob was the quintessential golden boy, always polished and put together,” she wrote in an essay titled, “Rob Porter Story Shows It’s Time To Agree Character Counts For Public Officials.”

“He exuded calm and confidence, like he knew exactly what he was doing with his life, and everything was going swimmingly,” Braunstein wrote. “Notably on a campus where dating was exceedingly rare, Rob was also often accompanied by some beautifully coiffed young woman. Forget Mr. Darcy. Rob was Pinterest-perfect.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.