House Democratic leaders called on Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) to resign Thursday, increasing pressure on the veteran lawmaker to leave office amid multiple allegations that he sexually harassed female aides.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her three deputies, including the House’s highest-ranking African American, Rep. James E. Clyburn (S.C.), said Conyers must step down, after one of his accusers detailed her experience on national television.
“Zero tolerance means consequences for everyone,” Pelosi said at a news conference. “No matter how great the legacy, it is no license to harass or discriminate. In fact, it makes it even more disappointing.”
Clyburn noted that Conyers, 88, had already stepped down as the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. “I told Conyers several days ago that I thought it was in his best interest that he do the same for his constituents that he did for his colleagues here,” he said.
Conyers, the longest-serving member of Congress, is accused of mistreating female aides over two decades, including alleged episodes of verbal abuse, inappropriate touching and sexual advances. He has denied wrongdoing and said through his attorney Thursday that he has no plans to resign or retire from the House.
“It is not up to Nancy Pelosi. Nancy Pelosi did not elect the congressman, and she sure as hell won’t be the one to tell the congressman to leave,” Arnold Reed, the attorney, told reporters outside the Conyers home in Detroit.
Still, calls for Conyers’s resignation kept emerging, including from rank-and-file members of the House and the head of a powerful liberal super PAC.
Priorities USA Chairman Guy Cecil tweeted that Conyers should resign, along with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who has been accused of inappropriately touching multiple women.
“This is not complicated,” Cecil tweeted Thursday. “Conyers should resign. Franken should resign . . . Hypocrisy on the other side doesn’t justify hypocrisy on our side. Period.”
Together with Franken, Conyers has become a central figure in the debate over how Congress should address allegations of sexual harassment by lawmakers and their aides.
Both Franken and Conyers are under investigation by congressional ethics committees, but it remains unclear whether the allegations will force them from office.
On Thursday, the Senate Ethics Committee confirmed that it has launched a preliminary inquiry into Franken’s behavior, and a handful of House Democrats — including Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) — called for him to resign, along with Conyers. Asked about such calls, Franken declined to comment.
After a fifth woman accused Franken on Thursday morning of inappropriate touching, his office said he has never “intentionally engaged in this kind of conduct.” Later in the morning, the website Jezebel quoted an unnamed former elected official in New England who said that Franken tried to give her a “wet, open-mouthed kiss” onstage at an event in 2006.
Reed suggested that Conyers deserves the same treatment from Democratic leaders as Franken, who has not come under equal pressure to resign.
“At the end of the day, I would suspect that Nancy Pelosi is going to have to explain what is the discernible difference between Al Franken and John Conyers,” Reed said.
Meanwhile, another congressman whose behavior has come under scrutiny said Thursday that he would not seek reelection.
“There are enough people who lost faith in me that it’s time to step aside,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who had shared explicit photos of himself with a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair. The photos later circulated online. Barton’s comments were reported by the Dallas Morning News.
Conyers has been hospitalized in the Detroit area for a stress-related illness, according to a family spokesman, who confirmed the news just as a woman who settled a sexual harassment complaint with him in 2015 identified herself publicly for the first time on national television.
In an interview with NBC’s “Today” show, former Conyers aide Marion Brown said Conyers touched her inappropriately and invited her to a Chicago hotel room to discuss business before propositioning her for sex.
“He asked me to satisfy him sexually,” Brown told NBC. “He pointed to areas of, genital areas of his body, and asked me to, you know, touch it. It was sexual harassment, violating my body, propositioning me for sex.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) also said that Conyers should step down, noting that he had heard Brown’s interview. “I think he should resign. I think he should resign immediately,” Ryan told reporters Thursday. “I’ve just been briefed on the torrent of allegations, and I think he should.”
Were Conyers to resign, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) would call a special election to replace him. State law does not put a timeline on the decision. In July 2012, when Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R) resigned from his Detroit area seat, Snyder left the seat vacant until the Nov. 6 general election, when a Democrat won the remaining two months of McCotter’s term.
The law is similar to New York's. When Rep. Eric Massa (D-N.Y.) resigned in March 2010 amid allegations that he had groped and tickled male staffers, Gov. David Paterson (D) put the replacement election on the November ballot. Paterson was criticized for the decision, which left Massa's district without a U.S. House member for eight months.
Clyburn said Thursday that he still stands by Conyers as a friend, though he’s calling for his resignation.
“I’m not going to ever step away from a friend because he made a mistake. Even if he made more than one,” Clyburn said. “So my friendship with him, I maintain. And you’re always disappointed when you friends have this kind of luck. That doesn’t mean you don’t stand by them.”
The Congressional Black Caucus has not called on Conyers to resign.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who worked with Conyers to get 2018 Democratic candidates to sign on to a universal health-care bill, suggested that Conyers would taint his 53-year-long progressive record if the scandal continued.
“I hope he will do the right thing for his own legacy,” Khanna said in an interview. “He was the only person who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had campaigned for in the United States Congress. He hired Rosa Parks. I hope, at the twilight of his career, he will reflect on his legacy.”
Meanwhile, Conyers's accusers have continued to draw media attention. One of the women, Deanna Maher, described an alleged incident in a television interview Wednesday night.
“It was violent, in my mind,” she told Fox News. “For [Conyers] to grab you . . . and force you against the wall and stick his tongue down my throat at my age, which I was 61 at the time, that was pretty devastating. I can’t tell you how ashamed I felt, dirty.”
On Thursday morning, Conyers family spokesman Sam Riddle said the congressman was hospitalized in part because of “this media assault” over the harassment allegations. Conyers’s attorney said the congressman had been dizzy, lightheaded and short of breath before he came to the hospital late Wednesday night.
"If the media would take the time to go after pedophiles, known pedophiles . . . you might have something and you could leave congressman Conyers alone," Riddletold reporters outside the lawmaker's Detroit home.
Mike DeBonis and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.