In 1992, after former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson was convicted of raping Miss Black America contestant Desirée Washington, Donald Trump leaped to his defense. The hotel and casino owner first recommended that Tyson pay a fine rather than face prison time. Then, in a pattern we’ve seen play out repeatedly in his presidency, Trump escalated quickly, blaming Washington for being raped.
In an interview with NBC News, Trump said, “You have a young woman that was in his room, his hotel room late in the evening at her own will. You have a young woman who was seen dancing for the beauty contest [the day following the rape], dancing with a big smile on her face, looked happy as could be.”
Trump had done as much real investigation into this matter as he later would into President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, but no matter. Tyson had made him millions by winning title bouts at his Atlantic City casino. Trump wasn’t acting out of the goodness of his heart, and he wasn’t defending Tyson because he believes in racial equality. Trump merely chose to defend a man who, at the time, was useful to him.
That is what he did then, and it is what he continues to do now with Rob Porter, his former staff secretary who was accused of domestic violence by his two ex-wives.
“He did a very good job when he was in the White House, and we hope he has a wonderful career, and he will have a great career ahead of him,” the president said of Porter last Friday, talking about the 40-year-old staffer as though he was an intern being sent back to school at the end of the summer. “But it was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly he’s also very sad now.”
Photos showing the blackened eye of Colbie Holderness, Porter’s first wife, had been published two days prior. Trump didn’t mention her or the spouse who succeeded her, Jennifer Willoughby. He followed those remarks with a Saturday tweet decrying the supposed lack of due process for men accused of misconduct, a sentiment that I thought the Central Park Five might find ironic.
And though White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders insists that Trump “supports victims of domestic violence,” he hasn’t told his nearly 48 million followers on Twitter as much.
The White House has had no luck containing the Porter scandal, especially after it was revealed that chief of staff John Kelly and White House counsel Don McGahn knew about the allegations against Porter and the protective order Willoughby obtained in 2010, well before last week’s Daily Mail report.
The administration had no plans to get rid of Porter until the media spotlight hit him. On the contrary: CNN reported Tuesday that Porter, who couldn’t get a security clearance thanks to the protective order, was actually in line for a promotion. He was reportedly one of Kelly’s favorite people, and Trump trusted him to see whatever few papers cross his normally empty desktop. Porter was clearly valuable to the president.
Observing this kind of failing up makes it tempting to argue that Trump merely believes men like him — pedigreed, wealthy and white — can do anything they want, especially with women’s bodies. That seemed to be the case with Roy Moore, who should have dropped out of his Senate race after The Washington Post reported allegations that he’d pursued and sexually assaulted minors while in his 30s.
“He totally denies it,” Trump said at the time. “He says it didn’t happen. And you know, you have to listen to him also.” He also backed Corey Lewandowski, his former campaign manager, after he’d been caught on tape roughing up reporter Michelle Fields as she tried to get an interview. And he supported Bill O’Reilly and the late Roger Ailes after both accused sexual harassers lost their plum gigs at Fox News.
Back in 1998, when Bill Clinton was still the U.S. president and therefore useful to him, Trump called his accusers “terrible” — though Trump also seemed to blame Clinton because he considered the alleged victims unattractive. Now, he backs Porter without condition.
But this isn’t so much about Trump defending white guys who, as he recommended in a 1994 interview, treat women “rougher.” It’s about him protecting men ― of any race ― who are of use to him. After all, that’s why he defended Mike Tyson. He defended Tyson because at the time, the champ was the hottest ticket in boxing, and if he went to prison, Trump would lose money. Whatever ― or whoever ― stands between Trump getting paid or getting his way, he targets. If that is a woman’s equal standing and bodily autonomy, let alone justice in the court of law, so be it.
Trump is not unique in this regard. This country has a long, appalling history of white men protecting the black bodies that can bring them profit and discarding the rest. That Trump’s now treating Porter the way he treated Tyson is yet another clear demonstration of what should already be plain to see: For this president, a human being’s utility in this world depends entirely on her or his ability to do things for Donald Trump.
He is not merely an opportunistic misogynist, emboldening the rape culture that normalizes violence against women. After all, he dissed Chris Brown for hitting Rihanna a few years back and later insisted that the NFL went too light on Ray Rice for punching his future wife, Janay. Perhaps if either of those two had been able to make Trump some money, he’d have come to their defense, too. When the only path to having the president care about you as a human being is to present some tangible value to him — through your service, through your wealth, or with your body — that should be a warning to us all.
Porter, now out of Trump’s employ, would do well to heed that warning. Tyson didn’t. After continuing to back Trump’s presidential candidacy, he seemed to think that his old buddy would help him out again. Last April, he talked to then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) about Trump erasing his rape conviction.
“Man, governor, I wish you could talk to Donald Trump, cause I haven’t talked to him in many years,” Tyson said to Christie. “Tell him he said he was going to give me my pardon, so I am waiting for my pardon. He said it out of his mouth, so I’m waiting.”
Tyson was convicted in state court, so Trump can’t help him. But even if he could, I doubt that he would. Mike is 51 now. He can’t fight. He is no longer useful.