Prominent Republican women are criticizing female White House staffers for falling in line with the president's defense of Rob Porter, the former staff secretary accused of abusing his ex-wives. Their discontent signals the growing alienation of women within a party they say fails to protect them.
"The fact that they remain loyal to this president and have protected him instead of doing the right thing is really disappointing, yet ultimately unsurprising," Setmayer, a former GOP communications director, told Newsweek, referring to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, senior adviser Ivanka Trump and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway.
After Huckabee Sanders stood by President Donald Trump's tweet calling for "due process" for Porter, the ex-staffer's first wife, Colbie Holderness, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that she "expected a woman to do better." She said she expected more from Conway too, who implied that Porter's girlfriend Hope Hicks, the White House communications director, was strong and smart enough to avoid abuse.
But Huckabee Sanders and Conway made their beds when they signed onto the Trump administration, Setmayer said. "Do they speak honestly about how they abhor this kind of behavior and risk being considered disloyal to the president?" she added. "Or do they dishonor themselves by defending the untenable position by POTUS? We see which side they've picked."
Ivanka Trump, meanwhile, has reportedly privately advocated for Porter's ex-wives. The senior adviser and first daughter was reportedly the first to show her father the photo of Holdnerness with a black eye. But despite her apparent show of solidarity with Porter's alleged victims behind closed doors, Ivanka has also not come out with a public statement explicitly condemning Porter or her father's defense of him.
Observers find this kind of behavior hard to square with Ivanka's self-proclaimed feminism and promises to be an advocate for women.
"Obviously loyalty to her father is very important to her," Setmayer said. "We can't rely on her to be a leader of the women's movement inside the White House."
This disillusionment could portend trouble for the Republican Party in terms of retaining the support of women voters. White women, a key demographic for Trump in 2016, have since swung toward Democrats, giving them a 12-point lead over Republicans. Some Republican women are even campaigning for Democrats in 2018.
Still, other women want to stay in the party, and see an opportunity for its female leaders to "right the ship."
"All of these women—Huckabee Sanders, Conway, Ivanka—have the potential to be better role models and positive voices for Republican women and women in general," Jennifer Pierotti Lim, the cofounder of Republican Women for Progress, told Newsweek. "I think there’s still time for them to come out as role models and be voices of reason within this otherwise unreasonable administration. We're crossing our fingers."
Her co-founder, Meghan Milloy, said if the women of the White House spoke out against domestic abuse with a unified voice it could "send a message that women are an important group to this administration"—a message women have yet to hear.
But Setmayer said any gestures now would be too little, too late.
"You never have a second chance to make a first impression—and theirs was full-throated support for Porter and not believing his accusers," Setmayer said. "It would be disingenuous if they came out now and said they stand against domestic violence.
"No one wants to hear that now."
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