The #MeToo sexual harassment movement roiling the nation reached the doors of the White House on Monday, when three women who last year accused President Trump of sexual misconduct began a renewed public push to gain attention for their allegations.
The three accusers were among more than a dozen who had initially come forward during the 2016 presidential campaign. The three reinvigorated their stories this week with an appearance on Megyn Kelly’s NBC show — their first joint interview — and a subsequent news conference in Manhattan, in which they also called on Congress to investigate their claims.
Their appeal occurs on the eve of a closely fought special U.S. Senate election in Alabama, where Roy Moore, the Republican nominee whom Trump has endorsed, is facing multiple accusations of sexual misconduct, and as four Senate Democrats have called on Trump to resign amid the allegations of harassment against him.
The White House dismissed the allegations in a morning statement and an afternoon news conference, saying the president has previously denied any improprieties and arguing that the questions were already litigated as part of his ascension to the presidency. Several White House officials also said the West Wing was not particularly panicked, in part because none of the accusations were new.
But some Trump aides, advisers and outside confidants are privately grappling with how to navigate the charged national environment over sexual misconduct, which may not pass anytime soon, and an increasingly aggressive Democratic Party.
Some outside Republicans close to the president said they are increasingly uneasy about his ability to withstand a revived spotlight on his behavior toward women amid the dramatic attitude shift happening nationwide in response to accusations of sexual misconduct against men from Hollywood to Capitol Hill. A number of Trump associates are also wary of the potential political costs if the president goes on a sustained attack against his accusers.
“These false claims, totally disputed in most cases by eyewitness accounts, were addressed at length during last year’s campaign, and the American people voiced their judgment by delivering a decisive victory,” the White House said in a statement Monday. “The timing and absurdity of these false claims speaks volumes, and the publicity tour that has begun only further confirms the political motives behind them.”
In a contentious media briefing — in which White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked if she had ever been sexually harassed and if she could empathize with victims of harassment — Sanders said, “The president has addressed these accusations directly and denied all of these accusations.”
On Tuesday, Trump again dismissed the accusations and blamed them on a Democrat-driven “fake news” campaign.
“Despite thousands of hours wasted and many millions of dollars spent, the Democrats have been unable to show any collusion with Russia — so now they are moving on to the false accusations and fabricated stories of women who I don’t know and/or have never met. FAKE NEWS!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
The allegations against Trump were made public after The Washington Post published an “Access Hollywood” recording last year capturing Trump boasting about grabbing women by the genitals. Trump acknowledged the veracity of the recording at the time and apologized, but since his election he has occasionally privately cast doubt on the tape, at times suggesting it was doctored or inauthentic. Billy Bush, who appeared on the recording, said last week that Trump was “indulging in some revisionist history” and also said there were eight witnesses to the encounter.
One official said the White House largely views the newfound attention to Trump’s accusers as a media and public relations issue. Once the West Wing realized the three women were giving an interview and news conference Monday, an aide who worked on the campaign and was familiar with the allegations circulated counterpoints from last year and later pointed out small inconsistencies between some of the women’s previous statements and what they said on Monday.
In phone calls and meetings in recent days, people in Trump’s orbit have deliberated over how best to defend against more than a dozen women who have leveled specific claims against him — while also taking seriously claims of sexual assault and harassment and not seeming to dismiss women, according to two people who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk frankly about the private discussions. There have also been conversations about how the issue could linger through next year’s midterm campaign season and how to handle that possibility, one outside adviser said.
“As the president said himself, he thinks it’s a good thing that women are coming forward,” Sanders said in her Monday news conference. “But he also feels strongly that a mere allegation shouldn’t determine the course.”
On Sunday, Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations and one of the most high-profile women serving in the administration, said that women who have accused Trump “should be heard,” offering what appeared to be a sharp break from the official White House position.
“They should be heard, and they should be dealt with,” Haley said when asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” about the allegations other women have made against Trump. “And I think we heard from them before the election. And I think any woman who has felt violated or felt mistreated in any way, they have every right to speak up.”
Democrats have been quick to jettison several members of their party accused of harassment, including pushing both Sen. Al Franken (Minn.) and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) to resign. Democratic lawmakers and strategists believe they can seize the moral high ground and use the issue to bludgeon Trump and his fellow Republicans.
On Monday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), widely viewed as a potential 2020 presidential candidate, became the fourth Democratic senator to call for Trump to resign over the allegations.
But some in Trump’s orbit believe the latest bout of negative publicity over the president’s alleged misbehavior will probably pass. One Republican strategist in frequent touch with the White House said the West Wing was “generally dismissive” of the latest flare-up.
“They think he’s invincible on this issue, because he survived the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape,” said the strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to recount private conversations. “He was literally caught on tape saying he does this — it was a big deal — and he still won.”
The Republican added that if Moore prevails in Tuesday’s election, the White House will only feel more emboldened. Moore is facing allegations from multiple women that he made sexual advances toward them when they were teens and he was in his 30s. One of the accusers said she was 14 at the time. Moore has denied the allegations.
The three women who retold their stories Monday were Samantha Holvey, a former Miss USA contestant who in October 2016 said Trump inappropriately inspected pageant participants; Jessica Leeds, a New York woman who said Trump groped her on a plane; and Rachel Crooks, who said he kissed her on the lips at Trump Tower.
The news conference was organized by Brave New Films, a nonprofit group launched by producer Robert Greenwald with the goal of promoting activism around liberal causes through short low-budget documentaries. The group has a budget of about $2.6 million, according to Jim Miller, its executive director.
“I didn’t want to go through it all again,” Holvey said in an interview after the news conference, recalling the backlash a year ago and the feeling that she hadn’t been heard. But the idea of getting together with other women who had similar experiences interested her.
“As a group, there might be more of an impact,” she said. And she was also noticing a change in her Facebook feed, with people asking: “What about Trump?”
Holvey suggested it made sense for Trump’s accusers to speak to the public again given the way the country’s atmosphere — and response to alleged sexual misconduct — has shifted over the past year.
“Let’s try round two,” she said. “The environment’s different, let’s try again.”
Sellers reported from New York. Robert Costa and Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.