The real danger of the renewed focus on President Trump's sexual harassment allegations, according to Trump allies who spoke to The Washington Post, is that it might cause Trump to take the bait — to rip the scab off a wound from the 2016 election, to use another metaphor.
Well, he just opened that wound right back up.
Trump's tweets Tuesday morning lashing out at the allegations against him are problematic for the White House for a host of reasons. In one fell swoop, the president:
- Made a (clearly intentional) sexually suggestive and demeaning comment about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
- Elevated Gillibrand as a potential 2020 opponent
- Dubiously claimed that not only are the allegations untrue, but that the accusers are women "who I don’t know and/or have never met"
- Effectively called his female accusers liars yet again, even as he faces a defamation lawsuit for doing exactly that
- Highlighted his own sexual harassment allegations during a week in which the Alabama special election promises to keep that issue in the news
Plenty of people are pointing to the calculation in Trump's tweets. As is his M.O., Trump says things like how Gillibrand "would do anything for" campaign contributions in a hugely suggestive way — but also a way that gives him plausible deniability that this isn't really what he was saying. "He was just talking about political favors!" Sarah Huckabee Sanders will undoubtedly say at Tuesday's White House press briefing.
Trump's track record of suggestive comments about women, though — whether Megyn Kelly, Mika Brzezinski, Ted Cruz's wife, Hillary Clinton or Carly Fiorina — make clear he's happy to spark people's imaginations in a very targeted way. This was unquestionably deliberate, seemingly in hopes of causing what the GOP base will believe to be a gross media overreaction.
But Trump's deliberate trolling isn't necessarily good politics. Trump seems to believe strongly that his 2016 election win was proof that voters decided in his favor on basically every controversial issue during the race — including the "Access Hollywood" tape and Trump's sexual harassment accusers. The White House has maintained numerous times that voters decided on these issues on Election Day. “The people of this country, at a decisive election, supported President Trump, and we feel like these allegations have been answered through that process,” Sanders said Monday.
But that is a vast oversimplification. It's a convenient argument, to be sure, but anybody with a passing familiarity with electoral politics knows it's not true. Trump won in 2016 largely in spite of himself and because Clinton was almost exactly as unpopular as he was. Perhaps the media and many Republicans overestimated just how much of a game-changer the "Access Hollywood" tape would be (I'll raise my hand on this one), but that doesn't mean it wasn't a clear net-negative for Trump.
A Quinnipiac University poll last week showed that 63 percent of Americans disapprove of Trump's handling of sexual harassment issues, 7 in 10 said Congress should investigate the accusations against Trump, and 73 percent said it was hypocritical for Trump to attack other men accused of sexual harassment, such as Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.). Clearly this is something ripe for Democrats to rehash — with Trump's assistance, of course.
And the reason it's ripe is that it risks relitigating an issue that seemed to be somewhat mitigated by Trump's win — and in a national environment that is much harsher to those accused of sexual harassment than it was 13 months ago. Trump's assertion in particular that he doesn't know his female accusers "and/or" never met them is a really dodgy claim that is already being picked apart. Trump's decision to call the women's stories "fabricated" also comes at a time when even those in his administration — specifically, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley — are saying the women "should be heard" and when Trump is facing a troublesome lawsuit stemming from exactly that kind of comment.
If Trump wants Sanders and Haley to keep being asked to weigh in on this, and if he wants more attention drawn to Summer Zervos's lawsuit, then mission accomplished. If he wants the results of the Alabama Senate race to reignite questions about his own allegations, well done. If he wanted to give Gillibrand even more of a platform than she had before, thumbs up.
No, this was just Trump, at what is apparently a very stressful time in his presidency, being thin-skinned and prone to settling scores and tossing some red meat to the base. And the efficacy of that strategy continues to be highly questionable.