Herman Cain harassment charges: The unanswered questions

at 12:58 PM ET, 11/02/2011

The burgeoning controversy surrounding sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain has taken on new life. So where do we go from here?
Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, center, is surrounded by security and staff as he walks through a hotel lobby in Alexandria, Va., earlier today. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

As revelations continue to trickle out — the most recent ones being that one of the women involved may want the National Restaurant Association to waive a confidentiality clause so she can speak out, and the New York Times report that one of the women was paid a year’s salary as a settlement — there remain several major questions to be answered in the hours and days ahead.

Here are a few of the big ones:

* Will the National Restaurant Association waive the confidentiality clause? Cain himself isn’t saying whether he will ask the group to do so, and it’s definitely not in the association’s interest.

But overwhelming public pressure is a powerful thing. If people are demanding the truth, Cain and the association could decide to give in, clear the air and hope that the episode blows over. Of course, allowing the women to talk may simply cause the situation to explode. After all, right now Cain’s opposition is nameless and faceless, and having an actual person speak about her experiences is much more powerful than the still-anonymous sources.

* Do the women really want to speak out? The Post’s James V. Grimaldi reported this morning that the woman whose lawyer said she wanted to talk is now getting cold feet.

Going public about something like this is NOT easy, and there are plenty of reasons for her to want to stay a private citizen. Getting involved in the situation and putting your name out there risks the kind of backlash we have seen against any number of women who have accused powerful men of sexual indiscretions (think Anita Hill and the accusers of Kobe Bryant and Dominique Strauss-Kahn ). The still-anonymous woman may want the public to know the facts, but it will come at a significant personal cost to her.

* What’s contained in the confidentiality clause? The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple has called on the tabloids to pay the women any resulting legal fees for breaching the confidentiality clause.

It’s not clear what kind of recourse the National Restaurant Association or Cain would have if the women breach the agreement (the agreement is confidential, after all), but the story, at this point, is very valuable. And for media willing to pay for stories — i.e. not the Post or most of the mainstream media — the cost may be worth the benefit.

The Fix is no legal expert, but if the cost of breaching the clause is simply having to pay back some or all of the settlement — as the Post’s Jennifer Rubin suggests — that could be seen as a relatively solid invesment for getting a good story. Especially given that one of the settlements was reported to be a mere $35,000. (The National Enquirer reportedly offered $50,000 for information on the John Edwards affair, for example.)

* Do other Republicans jump to Cain’s defense? While Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann are calling for Cain to be more forthcoming, other conservatives have leapt to his defense. So far, the most notable supporters include conservative media figures like Rush Limbaugh — whose influence should not be underestimated — and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

You may recall from the Anthony Weiner scandal that liberals jumped to his defense early, but then withdrew when it became clear that the scandal was real. Like Weiner, Cain has very ardent supporters on his end of the political spectrum. As things get worse for Cain, and if more people start to believe that he might have engaged in questionable conduct, do conservatives continue to stand by him? Tying yourself to an embattled politician is better avoided. If Republican politicians start to distance themselves, you’ll know it’s gotten bad for Cain.

* Does Cain elaborate on the hotel room? This is the biggest red flag when it comes to Cain’s story. Quite simply, it doesn’t pass the smell test. Cain is now saying he has never asked a woman to his hotel room, but he had initially said that he “had no recollection of that.”

How would a man who has been married for decades not recall whether he invited a woman who wasn’t his wife to his hotel room? Again, this harkens back to the Weiner scandal, when the New York congressman said he couldn’t say for sure whether the picture of a man’s midsection was of his own. (It was.)

If Weiner didn’t ever take such pictures, denying it would have been easy. With Cain, if he hasn’t made a habit of asking women to come to his hotel room, it seems odd that he wasn’t able to deny it firmly, right away. Expect to see him pressed on this issue.

 
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