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How Democrats Are Dealing with Their Harvey Weinstein Problem

After years as a Democratic donor, the Hollywood mogul is being cast out.

Eve Peyser

Eve Peyser

Photo: Sylvain Gaboury / Getty Images

Over the past five days, 22 women (so far) have alleged that they were sexually assaulted by Hollywood mega-producer Harvey Weinstein in a scandal that began with a New York Times report and has led to him being dismissed from the company that bears his name. Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Mira Sorvino and Ashley Judd are among those accusing him of essentially demanding actresses trade sexual favors for roles. Three of the women who came forward told the New Yorker they were raped by Weinstein.

Like many rich people in Hollywood, Weinstein is—or was—also a major donor to the Democratic Party, a longtime Clinton backer who contributed to Bill Clinton's legal fund in the 1990s, as well Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. He also donated to Obama's campaign; the former president's eldest daughter, Malia, interned for the Weinstein Company shortly after her father left office. Those are on top of donations he's made to a variety of individual Democratic congressional candidates, the Democratic Party's campaign organs, and PACs.

Unsurprisingly, these damning allegations against Weinstein have become fodder for the conservative media. "Now some Democrats are giving some of the money back or donating it to liberal causes," Sean Hannity wrote on FoxNews.com. "They think that cleans their hands. But Obama, Hillary Clinton and others have yet to comment publicly about him. If he was a conservative, they would be shouting from the mountaintops."

The ironies stack on top of hypocrisies here—several powerful figures at Fox, Hannity's employer, including founder Roger Ailes, have been accused of behavior on par with Weinstein's alleged misdeeds. And Donald Trump, the Republican president of the United States, has been accused of sexual assault by numerous women, and was even caught bragging about it on tape.

Still, given that Weinstein is now arguably the biggest news story in the country, it seems obvious that the many famous people who knew him should have a reaction to him, meaning actors, fellow Hollywood big shots, and the Democratic politicians who occasionally hobnobbed with him.

"There has been no comment from Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton, who condemned Donald Trump for boasting of sexual assault on the 'Access Hollywood' tape," wrote the New York Times's editorial board on Friday. "These Democratic leaders, admired by many young women and men, should make clear that Mr. Weinstein also deserves condemnation."

Many Democratic senators who received money from Weinstein—like Patrick Leahy, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthal, Cory Booker and Martin Heinrich—have pledged to give the donations they received from him to charity.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who previously received $11,800 from Weinstein, will be donating the money to RAINN, the country's largest anti-sexual violence organization. Glen Caplin, a Gillibrand spokesman, sent me the following statement:

Senator Gillibrand has received no donations from him this election cycle and will not accept any going forward. However, she will donate all the contributions she received in previous cycles to RAINN. Kirsten invites the right wing activists using this terrible story as a political tool to join her in actually working to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment in our society. They can start by endorsing her bipartisan legislation to end sexual violence on college campuses and in our military.

On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton finally broke her silence on the Weinstein scandal in a statement that echoed other condemnations:

I was shocked and appalled by the revelations about Harvey Weinstein. The behavior described by women coming forward cannot be tolerated. Their courage and the support of others is critical in helping stop this kind of behavior.

The Clinton family's relationship with Weinstein runs deeper than the other Democrats he donated to. In 2008, CNN reported that Weinstein threatened "to cut off contributions to congressional Democrats unless House Speaker Nancy Pelosi embraced his plan to finance revotes in Florida and Michigan" during a heated primary between Clinton, who he supported, and Obama. Nathan Lane accused Weinstein of assaulting him at Hillary's 53rd birthday party after he made a joke about Rudy Giuliani's combover.

Weinstein eventually came around on Obama, and hosted multiple fundraisers for his 2012 reelection campaign. After this article was published on Tuesday evening, the former president released this statement through a spokesperson:

Michelle and I have been disgusted by the recent reports about Harvey Weinstein. Any man who demeans and degrades women in such fashion needs to be condemned and held accountable, regardless of wealth or status. We should celebrate the courage of women who have come forward to tell these painful stories. And we all need to build a culture—including by empowering our girls and teaching our boys decency and respect—so we can make such behavior less prevalent in the future.

Even before Obama's words, elected Democrats were scrambling in an apparent effort to distance themselves from the suddenly toxic donor. The Democratic National Committee will donate over $30,000 it received from Weinstein to EMILY's List, an organization that aims to put more pro-choice Democratic women to office.

There's one Democrat, however, who may receive the bulk of the condemnation in coming days. The New Yorker 's story on Weinstein details how Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance—who, like nearly all New York City leaders, is a Democrat, and who is running unopposed for reelection this year—decided not to bring charges against Weinstein after he was accused by Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez of sexual assault. Even though the New York Police Department had a recording of Weinstein where he alluded to assaulting Gutierrez—audio that was obtained by the New Yorker—Vance's office claimed there wasn't enough evidence to press charges. (The Manhattan DA reportedly received $10,000 in donations from Weinstein's lawyer.)

On Tuesday, Chief Assistant DA Karen Friedman-Agnifilo released a statement asserting, "If we could have prosecuted Harvey Weinstein for the conduct that occurred in 2015, we would have." She also pushed back on the allegations in the New Yorker article:

After the complaint was made in 2015, the NYPD – without our knowledge or input – arranged a controlled call and meeting between the complainant and Mr. Weinstein. The seasoned prosecutors in our Sex Crimes Unit were not afforded the opportunity before the meeting to counsel investigators on what was necessary to capture in order to prove a misdemeanor sex crime. While the recording is horrifying to listen to, what emerged from the audio was insufficient to prove a crime under New York law, which requires prosecutors to establish criminal intent. Subsequent investigative steps undertaken in order to establish intent were not successful. This, coupled with other proof issues, meant that there was no choice but to conclude the investigation without criminal charges.

Unfortunately, it does seem like criminal charges are difficult to bring against men accused of sexual assault—especially when those men are rich, powerful, and have staffs of lawyers prepared to defend them. But what we've learned this week is that even if these men evade prison, it helps to say their names. Except in the case of the president.

This article has been updated to include comment from Barack Obama. It also been corrected to indicate that Vance reportedly received a $10,000 donation from Weinstein's lawyer, not Weinstein himself.

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