In July 2015, the Daily Beast published an article that resurfaced alarming allegations from a 1993 biography of Donald Trump, the businessman and former reality TV show host who was, even last summer, considered the GOP frontrunner.
In Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump, author Harry Hurt III recounts the testimony Ivana Trump gave during her and Donald Trump's divorce in the early 90s. According to Hurt's retelling of it, Ivana relayed a horribly violent incident that, during the testimony, she called "rape."
Shortly after the Daily Beast article was published, Gawker posted photos of the pages in the book, now out of print, describing the incident. Hurt's text portrays the alleged assault as a reaction to a scalp reduction surgery gone wrong. "Your doctor fucking ruined me!" Donald allegedly yelled, before tearing out Ivana's hair "by the handful, as if he is trying to make her feel the same kind of pain he is feeling."
The passage continues:
He rips off her clothes and unzips his pants. Then he jams his penis inside of her for the first time in more than sixteen months. Ivana is terrified. This is not lovemaking. This is not romantic sex. It is a violent assault. She later describes what The Donald is doing to her in no uncertain terms. According to the versions she repeats to some of her closest confidantes, 'He raped me.'
A subsequent statement from Ivana Trump, published on the first page of Lost Tycoon and as a footnote to this passage, expressed that she did not mean the word rape in a "literal or criminal sense." However, she did not contradict the other facts of the story. "During a deposition given by me in connection with my matrimonial case, I stated that my husband had raped me," the statement begins. It continues:
[O]n one occasion during 1989, Mr. Trump and I had marital relations in which he behaved very differently toward me than he had during our marriage. As a woman, I felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited towards me, was absent. I referred to this as a 'rape,' but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense.
According to the Daily Beast article, Donald Trump denied the allegations, as well as having scalp reduction surgery. Trump's lawyer, Michael Cohen, responded to the Daily Beast's request for comment by viciously attacking the reporter, Tim Mak, threatening to "ruin [Mak's] life." More disturbingly, Cohen also claimed (falsely) that it is impossible to rape your spouse. After the piece was published—Cohen's incendiary comments and all—Ivana Trump released another statement, affirming that she and Donald were "the best of friends" and saying that her own story was "totally without merit."
At the time, much of the political establishment didn't believe Trump would be a serious candidate, but the story did get picked up by other media outlets. But when Tim Mak was brought on the MSNBC show Morning Joe to discuss the article, host Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski provided a long list of reasons to disregard the story—none of which related to the fact that Trump was not taken seriously.
"People get really angry in divorces, they say a lot of things in divorces, high-profile divorces, especially," Scarborough reasoned. Brzezinski was even less willing to consider the story. "It's not interesting, and it's not even part of the conversation, and it's stupid," she said.
Mak was onscreen for only a few moments, which was still long enough for him to point out the troubling fact that Trump's lawyer had denied the existence of spousal rape. He was quickly shooed away. "It's better for us to thank you for coming and slowly step away from this segment," Scarborough said.
It's difficult to imagine any other candidate having an allegation like this thrown in his face and walking away basically unscathed. Even in the "liberal media," the story died down fairly quickly, though it's been mentioned here and there in the many stories about Trump since. (ProPublica recently listed Mak's story as one of the best that's been published during Trump's campaign.) Still, given the current climate surrounding sexual assault, it's strange that the story has received so little coverage.
"Trump has presented such an outrageous present-tense political story that, overall, the press has not been very imaginative about looking back at his biography," says Bruce Shapiro, a professor of news ethics at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma.
Political commentator Ana Kasparian of the online video news showThe Young Turks agrees with this explanation. "Trump's campaign has been so controversial that [this] was a big story for a little while, [but] then he did something outrageous and all the sudden the focus shifted to the new outrage," she told me.
Physical (and arguably gendered) abuse has also been a present-tense problem for the Trump campaign, from the protesters who have beenattacked at his rallies to the Breitbart reporter, Michelle Fields, who was allegedly grabbed roughly by Trump's campaign manager. The media, other candidates, and even our current president have not been shy in condemning this behavior. In this context, it's hard to understand why journalists wouldn't take a harder look at the precedents Trump's past has set.
But there are a variety of reasons that media are wary of approaching the topic of sexual assault, particularly in a situation as contested as this one. "[This is] an allegation that appeared in a deposition but that was never factually adjudicated," Shapiro said. "News organizations are usually pretty careful about allegations of sexual assault that haven't been adjudicated. And that may even be more so post–Rolling Stone['s UVA rape cover story]. There's a new caution."
Ivana's recanting is another concerning factor. "She has said [basically], 'It was a terrible event, but I don't mean it was criminal rape,'" Shapiro said. "[Because of that], I think if [the story] is going to be covered, it's going to need to be covered with a lot of sensitivity and care."
Shapiro also reasoned that Hillary Clinton's campaign has its own reasons for being unlikely to use allegations like these as fodder to criticize Trump. "Here, you have a campaign where the shadow of Bill Clinton is not too far behind," he said. Bill Clinton has been accused of sexual assault multiple times. Even disregarding those allegations, his relationship with Monica Lewinsky "would count as sexual harassment by any employer in the US," according to Shapiro.
Even if we remove the allegation of sexual assault, however, Ivana's divorce testimony, which, by definition, was taken under oath, still describes a terribly abusive situation. "The fact of this really abusive behavior was never taken off the table, only the description of it as a 'rape' in a criminal sense," Shapiro said.
"This is a horrifying and important incident in [Trump's] biography, and it's not an isolated incident," he added. "This is someone who as recently as a couple years ago was blaming sexual assault in the military on the integration of women. It's a legitimate line of inquiry."
A recent episode of the podcast Radiolab told the story of Democrat Gary Hart's 1988 presidential campaign, arguing that the coverage of Hart's extramarital affair during the campaign was a turning point for media in the United States. Previously, the sex lives of politicians, no matter how scandalous, had been considered off-limits to reporters. But Hart's affair opened a door that couldn't be closed again; from then on, writing about sex in politics was no longer taboo. Indeed, it was maybe even important.
Similarly, the media has opened up to allegations of sexual assault over the last few decades. "By and large, the media do tend to be more sympathetic to sexual assault allegations than in the past, because there is now more openness around talking about such issues and willingness to give alleged victims the benefit of the doubt," said Cindy Carter, a professor who focuses on feminist media studies at Cardiff University. Social media has also given victims a platform to publicize their allegations themselves. As a result, public figures like Bill Cosby, who may have seemed indestructible in the past, have had their reputations destroyed by the collective action of survivors and journalists.
It may be that nothing can tarnish Trump's reputation: He announced his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants "rapists," and his rhetoric has only escalated since then. None of the many scandals in which Trump has found himself seem to have damaged his connection with his voters. On the contrary, Trump continues to dominate the primaries; as of publication, he's won 20 states so far.
But though Trump's supporters may not care, it is worth investigating the history and character of any presidential candidate. When I spoke to Lloyd Grove, another Daily Beast journalist who has covered Donald Trump since the early 2000s, Grove predicted that these allegations may still have an effect on Trump's campaign, despite the media's relative reluctance to cover them. "In what is obviously an extremely surprising campaign," he said, "one thing that would not surprise me is if this incident came up again."