A woman has accused President Trump of forcefully sexually assaulting her, and powerful politicians on both sides of the aisle aren’t really that outraged. In fact, many of them don’t seem focused on E. Jean Carroll’s accusations at all, according to a Washington Post survey of top lawmakers this week. But why?
“I don’t have any comments about that,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said when asked about Trump’s defense that he didn’t assault Carroll because “she’s not my type.”
“There’s so many allegations of sexual harassment and other things on this president,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat. “I wouldn’t dismiss it, but let’s be honest, he’s going to deny it and little is going to come of it.”
“You’re asking me about a story I’ve never even read,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said.
The 2020 Democratic candidates haven’t been much more focused on this, either; ahead of the first primary debates on Wednesday and Thursday, it’s not something they’ve talked much about.
Here are some theories on why Washington politicians are shrugging at this, developed with the help of Kelly Dittmar, an expert in gender politics at the Center for American Women and Politics.
Women must prove their accusations before they’re taken seriously
The burden of proof often rests on the victim and not the accused assailant. That’s less a reflection of politics than it is of society, Dittmar says.
But it still gives politicians a reason to avoid commenting on politically inconvenient allegations — they can say they’ll take these seriously if the accuser gives more to the story.
“I don’t know, have any of the specifics and it’s just important any types of allegations like this are taken seriously, but they do have to be properly vetted,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who has talked about being raped when she was in college, said.
But as we learned in Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination, even an FBI investigation into someone’s accusations can fail to provide definitive proof one way or the other. (More on this below.)
There’s numbness to these accusations
Nearly a dozen women went public with their accusations before the 2016 election, so this isn’t at all unexpected.
Carroll is the 16th woman to accuse Trump of sexual misconduct and provide witnesses they told at the time about the incident. (That’s a key way to corroborate these claims.)
Though Carroll’s accusation is the most violent: She claims that in a chance encounter in late 1995 or early 1996, Trump pinned her to the wall of a department store dressing room, pulled down her clothes and briefly penetrated her before she escaped.
From Democrats’ point of view, if voters knew Trump was accused of being a serial sexual harasser and still elected him president, what’s going to change now by making a fuss about Carroll’s accusations?
“It’s not particular new news, so I don’t know,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said.
Democrats are focused on propping up their vision of the country for the 2020 election and actively not trying to get into battles with Trump that could make him look like a victim.
It sounds cynical, but politics can be very cynical.
Expending political capital on sexual allegations hasn’t proved fruitful for Democrats
When Democrats were trying to beat Trump in 2016, the sexual harassment allegations that came to light late in the campaign weren’t part of their primary pitch to voters.
Two years later, Democrats got a chance to test drive making sexual misconduct allegations a primary reason to oppose Trump — or a proxy for Trump in the form of his Supreme Court nominee.
During the Senate fight over confirming Kavanaugh, who was accused by an acquaintance of sexual assault when he was in high school, Democratic activists crowded Washington to hold protests. They championed his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford. Democratic senators tried to slow down Kavanaugh’s confirmation process in the Republican-controlled Senate. Some even walked out of Kavanaugh’s hearing.
Democrats threw out everything they had to stop Kavanaugh, and they lost that battle. Couple that with losing the 2016 presidential election, and they have some powerful data points to argue going after Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct history is not the way to beat him.
“On the Democratic side,” Dittmar said, “the shrug is: ‘Well, everybody knows this and they still aren’t reacting, so what can we do about it?’” (Though she argues a bully pulpit can be a powerful tool even if it doesn’t get Trump out of office.)
Partisanship is a powerful motivator to stay the course
During those Kavanaugh hearings, one Republican senator crossed party lines briefly to give the FBI a chance to investigate the allegations. Now-retired Jeff Flake of Arizona later said he received death threats and people protesting at his home for that. “There’s no value to reaching across the aisle,” he said.
Republicans feel this pull to be loyal to their party most acutely right now. High-profile GOP candidates for Congress who criticized Trump for bragging about sexual assault in a “Access Hollywood” video lost their races or nearly lost their primaries, even years afterward.
The 2020 election is right around the corner, and Trump is still incredibly popular among base voters. So Republican candidates can’t risk being seen as disloyal to him now.
“If you’re a Republican,” Dittmar said, “you’re going to say: 'Well, in this environment, everybody’s just out to get him, and it must be false.”