In Trump’s Tuesday-morning tweet, he said Gillibrand used to go to his New York office “ ‘begging’ for campaign contributions” and “would do anything for them.” Trump also mocked Gillibrand as a “lightweight” and “a total flunky” for Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Trump’s words were widely criticized as sexually suggestive and demeaning, though White House denied there was anything sexually inappropriate about the post.
Without mincing words, “Today” host Savannah Guthrie asked Gillibrand whether she interpreted Trump’s tweet to mean she had been willing to trade sexual favors for campaign cash.
The 51-year-old junior senator from New York nodded.
“Certainly that’s how I and many people read it,” she told Guthrie. “It was a sexist smear, intended to silence me.”
Echoing her comments to reporters yesterday, Gillibrand accused Trump of trying to shut her down after she had called for a congressional investigation into the multiple sexual harassment and assault allegations against him.
“He’s often berated women and made them feel that they cannot be heard as well,” Gillibrand told Guthrie. “He is a bully and he has been attacking different people across this country since becoming president.”
Trump has vehemently denied the claims, even tweeting, incorrectly, on Tuesday that they came from “women who I don’t know and/or have never met.” During his campaign, Trump threatened to sue the women who accused him of misconduct — a threat that has not materialized.
The senator cited Tuesday’s special Senate race in Alabama — in which Democrat Doug Jones pulled off an upset over Republican Roy Moore, who was dogged by numerous allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls — and the #MeToo movement as reasons Trump’s denials wouldn’t work.
“This is a moment in time, unlike any other, with the ‘Me Too’ movement. Women are feeling the ability to tell what happened to them, some of the worst moments they’ve lived, and tell it publicly, and that is powerful and it is affecting everything,” Gillibrand said. “People are looking for justice. You are seeing quick justice, whether it’s in Hollywood or in corporate America or in Congress.”
As it happens, that accountability had recently hit the set of the “Today” show.
Just a few weeks ago, a visibly upset Guthrie had to announce the abrupt firing of her former co-host, Matt Lauer, whom NBC had terminated after receiving a complaint about his inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace.
As The Washington Post reported, by Tuesday afternoon six Democratic senators had called on Trump to step down, and more than 100 House Democrats had signed on to a letter calling for a congressional investigation.
On Tuesday, Trump ignored reporters when asked to clarify his tweet. White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders disputed the characterization of Trump’s tweet as sexually suggestive, telling reporters that “there’s no way this is sexist at all” and later adding: “I think only if your mind is in the gutter would you have read it that way.”
Sanders said Trump was trying to make a point about the corrosive nature of money in politics and characterized Gillibrand as “a wholly owned subsidiary of people who donate to her campaign.”
“He’s used that same terminology many times in reference to men,” Sanders said of the language in Trump’s tweet.
On the “Today” show Wednesday, Guthrie raised some of those examples, including from last March, when Trump alleged Mitt Romney had begged for his endorsement in 2012.
“He was begging for my endorsement,” Trump told a campaign crowd at the time. “I could’ve said, ‘Mitt, drop to your knees,’ and he would’ve dropped to his knees. He was begging. True. True. He was begging me.”
Playing Devil’s Advocate, Guthrie then asked Gillibrand if Trump was within his bounds, politically, to defend himself if the senator had called for his resignation first.
“You played hardball,” Guthrie said. “Doesn’t [Trump] have the right to do the same?”
“The president says whatever he wants, whenever he wants. I don’t think that level of discourse, however, is what this country wants” Gillibrand replied. “I think what he has done is unacceptable. And if you put that in the context of multiple accusers who have accused him of sexual assault and sexual harassment that are credible, you need accountability. And I think what people do want is accountability and he should resign.”
Gillibrand, whose name is often raised as a potential presidential candidate for the 2020 race, has frequently focused on equal rights in her time in the Senate. She was the first Democratic senator to call on Al Franken to resign, as the former Minnesota senator faced multiple sexual harassment claims — which garnered her both praise and criticism.
As The Post’s Ed O’Keefe reported, Trump’s attack on Tuesday may have done Gillibrand more good than harm, politically speaking:
The tweet came shortly after Gillibrand dropped off her young sons at school and as she was seated at a bipartisan Bible study session with Sens. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), James Lankford (R-Okla.). Her phone started vibrating, and aides said they pulled her out of the group to inform her and prepare a response.. . . A few hours later, her reelection campaign sent out a fundraising pitch with the subject line, “Cannot be Silenced.”
Regarding the charges in the president’s controversial tweet, a Gillibrand aide told The Post on Tuesday that Trump met with Gillibrand once in 2010, and that Ivanka Trump, his oldest daughter, was in attendance. Since 1996, Trump has donated $8,900 to Schumer and $5,850 to Gillibrand, according to Open Secrets, a nonprofit website that tracks campaign contributions.
John Wagner, Ed O’Keefe and Ashley Parker contributed to this report, which has been updated.