Film producer Harvey Weinstein wasn’t so lucky and is headed to New York’s notorious Rikers Island to await sentencing after his conviction on charges of rape and sexual assault. Well, that’s not really accurate. He wasn’t unlucky so much as he finally buckled under the weight of decades of his actions.
Rebecca Traister’s October 2017 essay assessing how Weinstein was finally facing some accountability focused in part on the diminishment of his physical power, an assessment that also serves as a metaphor: Weinstein had done too much to support his own weight any longer. The ways in which he lashed out after his arrest had gone from fearsome to laughable, as happens with bullies whose power and influence have evaporated.
Weinstein’s fate is inextricable from the moment for myriad reasons. The reporting that brought him down emerged at the outset of the MeToo movement, a broad reckoning for some of those accused of sexual misconduct. That it emerged in 2017, months into President Trump’s administration, isn’t a coincidence. Actress Alyssa Milano, whose #MeToo tweet encouraging women to share experiences with assault, told an Australian reporter in 2018 that Trump’s election catalyzed the energy behind the movement.
“With that came a sudden fear — an urgent fear — that women were feeling,” Milano said. “And if not fear, then rage.”
Trump, of course, faced numerous accusations of improper touching and assault during the 2016 campaign, allegations that emerged following the publication of a video by The Washington Post in which Trump described touching women without their consent. Accusations have continued to emerge since he took office, including one last summer from a journalist who alleged she was assaulted by Trump two decades ago. Trump has consistently waved these accusations away, insisting the women were lying and claiming at times he might sue them. He’s disparaged the MeToo movement as another example of an overly “politically correct” culture.
It is either the case that Trump has been unfairly targeted by false independent allegations from more than a dozen women, many of them documented contemporaneously — or that Trump is the most prominent example of a man with wealth and power who’s managed to avoid accountability.
Given his history and the cultural importance of the Weinstein verdict, it was understandable Trump would be asked about it at a news conference on Tuesday, during the president’s trip to India.
He was asked if he thought justice was served with the verdict. His response was entirely political.
“So I was never a fan of Harvey Weinstein, as you know,” Trump claimed. “In fact, he said he was going to work hard to defeat me in the election. How did that work out by the way? I’m trying to figure that out.”
“He — he was the person I didn’t like,” he continued. Trump noted he had been traveling and so hadn’t heard much about the verdict (though he had also tweeted responses to things he’d been watching on Fox News). “I was just not a fan of his. I knew him a little bit. Not very well. I knew him because he was in New York. Not — not a person that I like."
Trump insisted it was Democrats who had supported Weinstein, leveraging the question into a weapon against his opponents. (He claimed Hillary Clinton “loved” Weinstein, for example.)
“He gave tremendous money to the Democrats, and I guess my question is, will the Democrats be asking for that money back?” he continued. “Because he gave a lot of money to the Democrats. And, you know, it’s too bad, but that’s the way it worked.”
In fact, after the Weinstein allegations were made public in 2017, a number of Democrats who had received contributions from Weinstein donated money to charitable groups as did the Democratic Party. When prominent Republican fundraiser Steve Wynn was subsequently accused of assaulting numerous women, Republicans were similarly asked to return the money he’d raised for them and their party. The party declined to do so.
NBC’s Peter Alexander followed up with a very pointed question about Weinstein’s actions.
“This is being viewed as a milestone for the MeToo movement,” Alexander said. “What message can you, as president, deliver to women in America who are still afraid to come forward and share their stories of sexual harassment and assault?”
This is a traditional role played by the president of the United States, taking advantage of opportunities to reinforce positive messages and to empower those who might need it.
“Well, again, I don’t know the actual results,” Trump replied. “I haven’t seen too much because I’ve been in India, as you know.”
“Aside from this case, just broadly,” Alexander prompted.
“But I think — I think that from the standpoint of women, I think it was a great thing,” Trump said. “It was a — it was a great victory and sends a very strong message. Very, very strong message, Peter.”
He moved on to another question.
Trump’s initial response to the Weinstein question made clear how he sees the issue: as a political wedge. This is how he sees most things, of course, and he’s rarely effective at masking that impulse. Weinstein was an ally of the Democratic Party and therefore can serve as a way to shiv Trump’s political opponents. Beyond that, his utility to Trump is limited — and the risks he poses significant.
Because what could Trump say in response to Alexander’s question, really? Past presidents might have said the Weinstein verdict showed coming forward, risking reputation and inviting attacks, would be worth the outcome both personally and to the public at large. Trump can’t say that in any convincing way, given he faces his own allegations and has responded by attacking his accusers. His mantra has long been to deny any allegations he faces, an instinct which has served him effectively in holding his base of support but which inherently limits his ability to rise to any number of occasions, this one included. If he had such an instinct in the first place.
Alexander’s question was brilliant in its elucidation of the tension between how Trump operates politically and what’s expected of him in his position. Just asking the question provides the answer. What message could Trump give to women afraid to come forward with their stories of assault? That, often, those you accuse will call you a liar and leverage their power to silence you. That those you accuse might escape accountability for their actions.
The allegations against Trump are just that, allegations. They will remain allegations until one of three things happens: He admits culpability, his accusers indicate the allegations were false, or there is a legal proceeding evaluating them — something that is very unlikely in general and, while Trump is president, essentially impossible.
The Weinstein verdict does, as Trump said, send a strong message: Sometimes justice prevails. Sometimes there is accountability for the powerful. It’s a message important for women to hear. It’s a message that’s important for powerful men to hear as well.