First he called them ‘character assassins,’ now Orrin Hatch is apologizing to the ex-wives of a White House aide accused of domestic violence

(AndrŽ Chung | special to The Salt Lake Tribune) Flanked by his security staff on the left and Matt Whitlock, his communications director on the right, Sen. Hatch makes his way to a luncheon in Washington D.C. on December 21, 2017. Senator Orrin Hatch is the senior senator from Utah, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and President pro tempore of the United States Senate.

Sen. Orrin Hatch reportedly has apologized to the ex-wives of former White House staff secretary Rob Porter for accusing them of being “character assassins that would attempt to sully a man’s good name” after they came forward with allegations of domestic violence.

The women — Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby — said Porter, who previously served as Hatch’s chief of staff, physically and verbally abused them launching a scandal that has roiled the White House leading to resignations, questions about the security clearances of top aides and intense debate over who knew about the alleged abuse and what they did or didn’t do about it.

Porter left his White House post earlier this month and has denied the accusations. Holderness has released a picture showing her with a black eye.

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple, in a series of tweets Saturday, reported that Hatch, R-Utah, recently sent letters to Holderness and Willoughby on his Senate stationery seeking to explain his initial strong defense of Porter after stories were published in the Daily Mail and The Intercept.

Shortly after the news reports were published in early February, the White House released a statement from Hatch that called the ex-wives’ assertions “a vile attack on such a decent man.”

“Shame on any publication that would print this — and shame on the politically motivated, morally bankrupt character assassins that would attempt to sully a man’s good name,” Hatch said. “I know Rob. I’ve known him for years, both as a close friend and as a personal adviser. He is kind and considerate towards all. The country needs more honest, principled people like Rob Porter, which is why I hope that this cynical campaign to discredit his character ultimately fails.”

A few hours later, after pictures of Holderness’ black eye were widely publicized, Hatch released a second statement saying he was “heartbroken” by the allegations.

(Photo 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.

“In every interaction I’ve had with Rob, he has been courteous, professional, and respectful,” Hatch said. “My staff loved him and he was a trusted adviser. I do not know the details of Rob’s personal life. Domestic violence in any form is abhorrent and unacceptable. I am praying for Rob and those involved.”

Porter not only served as Hatch’s chief of staff, he also worked for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, as his general counsel and previously taught at Brigham Young University. Lee has not commented on the abuse allegations.

Willoughby told The Washington Post that Hatch’s strong initial statement was based on the impression that political opponents were trying to sink Porter, and she appears to have accepted the senator’s apology.

“I feel like it’s a sincere apology and having been in D.C. for upwards of 12 to 13 years, I feel like this is sufficient, given what I know to be true,” she told Wemple.

The Salt Lake Tribune has reached out to Hatch’s office for comment and has not yet received a response.

The letter is about a page and a half long and included a handwritten note that Willoughby said included “a prayer for good wishes and blessings.”

The two ex-wives have also said they reported Porter’s abuse to their Mormon bishops, but were encouraged to stay with him so they wouldn’t hurt his career. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tells its lay leaders it has a “zero tolerance” policy for abuse, but other women have come forth since this scandal to say their lay bishops either did not believe them or were not helpful when they reported violence at the hands of their husbands.

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)