Quinta Jurecic, an associate editor for the Lawfare blog, is currently serving as a member of The Post’s editorial board.
For months, the national reckoning with sexual harassment and assault orbited President Trump as if around a black hole — intimately connected to a man who nevertheless remained untouched by it. Then last week, something changed. Three of Trump’s previous accusers reiterated their allegations against him. A group of more than 50 Democratic congresswomen requested that the House take up an investigation into Trump’s conduct. Eight senators have called on the president to resign over the accusations and seconded the demand for a congressional investigation. Of those, Trump focused his ire on Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), whom he implied had traded sex for campaign donations.
A congressional probe of the allegations against the president remains highly unlikely, at least while both the Senate and House remain under Republican control. But in theory, such an investigation could make a valuable — even crucial — contribution to the ongoing reckoning.
Ideally, Congress would focus that investigation on how the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault limits opportunity in the workplace, and it would address the allegations against Trump as part of that investigation. Jessica Leeds, Samantha Holvey and Rachel Crooks, who came together last week at a news conference to return their accusations of the president to the public eye, have all said they would be willing to testify before Congress. Trump should also be given the chance to speak under oath about his interactions with these women and the authenticity of the “Access Hollywood” tape, which he apparently has questioned.
There is an important avenue for congressional inquiry here. As New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister writes, the current crisis is not just about sex but also about sexual misconduct toward women at work: both women’s vulnerability to harassment in the workplace and the economic and professional vulnerabilities that result from that harassment. This is a sex-discrimination problem — and Congress should hear from experts as to how to address this pervasive gender inequity. Trump’s behavior is an example. Like many of the powerful men recently exposed as predatory, much of his alleged behavior took place while the women who accuse him were at work or seeking professional guidance. Now, as president, he is the nation’s most powerful at-will employer.
Such hearings on workplace harassment could produce concrete benefits in the form of legislative solutions to systems that stack the deck against victims, such as nondisclosure agreements written into employment contracts. But while pointing to Trump as a test case might be politically satisfying, the end goal of that piece of it is less clear. What comes after the investigation? The behavior the president is accused of, especially because voters were aware of the allegations before the election, probably does not constitute an impeachable offense.
The answer is that we should think of the hearing as justification in itself, something akin to a truth and reconciliation commission. In societies rebuilding after devastating conflict — notably post-genocide Rwanda and post-apartheid South Africa — such commissions have encouraged both victims and perpetrators to share their experiences and work toward the truth of what took place. It’s an alternative model of justice focused on healing a wounded community rather than punishing the guilty.
Truth and reconciliation commissions are about storytelling. The goal is to give perpetrators immunity to encourage them to shed light on past crimes, but also to provide victims with a space in which to speak and be heard. Commissions are about emotion, too: Ideally, they allow people on all sides of a conflict to work through their sorrow and resentment in order to heal.
It’s impossible to isolate any one cause of the post-Harvey Weinstein wave. But a great deal of it may come from the rage of American women who have been, unknowingly perhaps, waiting for something to give since Trump’s election. The rawness and catharsis of this moment are bound up with year-old frustration over a country that didn’t find the would-be president’s disrespect for women disqualifying. A real reckoning with harassment and assault requires not only figuring out how to prevent misconduct in the future but also coming to terms with Trump.
Congress almost certainly can’t compel the president to testify if he refuses. And even if Trump appeared, he has shown little indication of a capacity for emotional honesty or remorse. The real value of such hearings would come from listening to the stories of the women who have accused him — women whom he has branded as liars and frauds — giving them a chance to speak and be heard apart from his alleged abuse.
Testimony under oath before a bipartisan committee would be an anchor to the truth. For that same reason, it would be a step toward rebuilding a world splintered both by the damage of assault and by the presidential attack not just on truth, but on women’s stories.
Read more on this topic: