Trump's Treatment of Women, Not Russia, Will Bring Him Down
We should be paying more attention to the sexual harassment and assault allegations swirling around the president.
Left: Photo of Donald Trump by Drew Angerer/Getty. Right: Photo of Summer Zervos by KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty
For months, White House watchers have been focused on the big scandal that has the potential to bring this president down: Russian collusion and the obstruction of justice charge that could go with it. Every new development in Robert Mueller’s investigation is covered extensively and dissected endlessly on Twitter and cable news, with each indictment and guilty plea of a Trump associate representing another link in a chain that we assume—or hope—will lead to Donald Trump himself. We read the tea leaves of Trump-Putin meetings and of Russia’s relationships with other nations. The various grifters, hucksters, and criminals who have long had relationships to Trump, some of whom cycled in and out of the his campaign and administration, give us good reason to think that some seriously scandalous stuff went on between Russia and members of this administration (and the president’s own family). There’s more than ample reason to believe that there was collusion between Trump and a hostile foreign power.
Any potential wrongdoing should of course be investigated. But if we’re looking at what might be the most direct route to toppling the teflon Don in the Oval Office, we don’t need to rely on complex international shadiness. It seems that if Trump is taken down before the 2020 election it will be at the hands of the people he respects the least: Women.
We’ve seen hints of this already in the Michael Cohen plea deal. Trump’s longtime crony admitted that he paid off Trump’s mistresses at the direction of the president while Trump was running for president (a crime Trump has denied). That was the clearest indication yet that Trump committed an illegal act during his campaign, and it had nothing at all to do with backroom deals with Russia.
This month brings another potential problem for the president. He is submitting answers to questions, in writing but under oath, in a defamation lawsuit. Trump is being sued by Summer Zervos, a former contestant on his reality show The Apprentice who says Trump sexually assaulted her in 2007. When she spoke out about those allegations in 2017, Trump called her a liar; she is suing him not for the harassment itself but for his claim she wasn’t telling the truth when he knew that she was.
If Trump lies in his answers to the questions posed in these written interrogatories, he opens himself up to perjury charges—the same thing that got Bill Clinton impeached, though not removed from office. It’s a fear of perjury that may be leading his lawyer Rudy Giuliani to insist that the president won’t answer questions from Mueller. But he will have to answer questions from Zervos.
We know that Trump has a loose relationship with the truth, even when he's talking to his legal advisers. Whether that’s because he’s a compulsive liar or because he’s mentally impaired to the point of not being fully able to disentangle truth from fiction doesn’t matter, at least not for our purposes here. What’s relevant is that the president has a habit of lying to everyone about everything. Being put under oath makes this pattern of dishonesty his greatest vulnerability.
And yet there isn’t much attention being paid to Trump’s sexual harassment scandals or the scandals that have arisen from his hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, who said that Trump offered to pay her after they had sex.
Surely this is because these stories feel like old news. This president has rewritten the script on what’s acceptable, from blatant white nationalism to unvarnished misogyny. Other Republican leaders haven’t exactly been feminists or civil rights icons, but the GOP at least seemed to believe it was necessary to put a veneer of politeness and dog whistles over their sexism and racism. That’s gone out the window—the signals are loud and clear to anyone with eyes and ears.
With a president who is so willing to be so unapologetically noxious, and who made an entire campaign appealing to the entitlement of disaffected white men who fear their stranglehold on power slipping (and the angry white women who know and love them), allegations of affairs, sexual harassment, and even sexual assault weren’t all that shocking. This is a man who spent decades as a tacky fixture and punchline of the New York social scene, a man who went on the Howard Stern Show to talk about his wife’s breasts and ran the Miss Universe franchise, (where he unapologetically focused on boobs in bikinis over brains and allegedly harassed, ridiculed, and creeped on the young contestants).
When he ran for president, he carefully portrayed himself as a hypermasculine counter to Hillary Clinton’s potentially feminized America. He encouraged his followers to ratchet the rhetoric up even more, and Trump rallies were rife with merchandise encouraging him to “Trump that bitch.” Male entitlement, and the misogyny it entails, is his brand.
So it’s not surprising that Trump was able to survive all the allegations of sexual harassment and assault made by Zervos and many other women during the campaign, even though he was caught on tape saying, “I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
But conning millions of conservative voters who are already inclined to forgive your sins is a different thing than conning the legal system.
Getting to the bottom of the Russia story is crucial. It’s complex, and those investigating it, from journalists to government officials, need time and resources. But it's also crucial to get to the bottom of Trump’s alleged sexual harassment incidents, and then the alleged lies he told about the woman who accused him of such behavior. Those cases are a lot more straightforward and immediate. We aren’t treating them with as much seriousness because this president has raised the bar for wrongdoing so absurdly high that “clear and unassailable evidence of direct collusion between the president of the United States and a hostile foreign power, for the express purpose of throwing an election and directly undermining American democracy” is the only thing we’ve all agreed will count enough to get rid of the man in the Oval Office.
That’s crazy, and it’s what Trump and his acolytes want. Evidence that Trump sexually assaulted women—and paid off others in ways that broke the law—should be enough to boot him. The Zervos case may just offer that up, especially if Democrats take back Congress and are on the lookout for “high crimes and misdemeanors” that could be used to start impeachment proceedings.
We should be paying closer attention. And how sweet it will be if women—the people Trump denigrates and disrespects more than nearly any other group (save immigrants)—eventually win out.
Jill Filipovic is the author of The H-Spot: The Feminist Pursuit of Happiness. Follow her on Twitter.