By Karen Tumulty, Mark Berman and Jenna Johnson – The Washington Post.
Almost a year after New Yorker Jessica Leeds and other women stepped forward with harrowing accounts of being sexually assaulted by a powerful man, another scandal with similar elements exploded.
Only this time, the punishment was swift and devastating.
“It is hard to reconcile that Harvey Weinstein could be brought down with this, and [President] Trump just continues to be the Teflon Don,” said Leeds, who claims she was groped 30 years ago on a plane by the man whose presence she cannot escape now that he sits in the Oval Office.
In Florida, Melinda McGillivray was having much the same reaction.
“What pisses me off is that the guy is president,” McGillivray, who a year ago went public with allegations that Trump grabbed her at Mar-a-Lago in 2003 when she was 23. “It’s that simple.”
Leeds and McGillivray were among the 11 women who came forward in the 2016 campaign to accuse the then-Republican presidential candidate of unwanted touching or kissing. Trump called the charges “pure fiction” and referred to the women as “horrible, horrible liars.”
Their claims did not stop the celebrity real estate titan on his climb to the most powerful office in the world.
Since then, numerous men in high places have been felled by charges of sexual misconduct. Most notable among them were Bill O’Reilly, the star Fox News anchor who was ousted less than a year after Roger Ailes, the network’s co-founder; and Weinstein, once regarded as one of the most influential figures in the entertainment business.
The Weinstein scandal, which has featured graphic accounts of assault from a string of celebrity accusers, has sparked a national debate about sexual harassment. Many women, inspired by a #MeToo campaign, have taken to social media to tell their own stories, and calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline have risen sharply.
[#MeToo made the scale of sexual abuse go viral. But is it asking too much of survivors?]
But for Trump’s accusers, the renewed debate offers a reminder that their allegations did not have the same effect.
‘Trump just keeps merrily going along’: For Trump accusers, nothing has changed
Trump, unlike Weinstein, was able to deflect their claims — despite the disclosure of a video in which he was heard bragging about the kind of behavior some of the women had alleged. Trump has never followed through with his vow to sue his accusers or produce the “substantial evidence” he said would refute their claims.
So far, the allegations against the president have led to a single new lawsuit filed by a Trump accuser who argues that the president defamed her when he denied her allegations — a case that Trump’s lawyer Marc Kasowitz called a “completely contrived, totally meritless lawsuit, which we expect to be summarily dismissed.”
Kasowitz did not respond to questions from The Washington Post about the other women’s claims and why Trump has not produced the evidence he said would to disprove them.
The frustrations of some Trump accusers surfaced publicly in the days after the New York Times revealed the allegations against Weinstein.
“My pain is everyday with bastard Trump as President,” tweeted Jill Harth, who once worked with Trump on organizing beauty pageants and sued him in 1997, claiming he had repeatedly groped her breasts, tried to touch her genitals and kissed her against her will. “No one gets it unless it happens to them. NO one!”
Harth, who is now a makeup artist in New York and declined to be interviewed, also accused Trump of getting into bed, uninvited, with one of the 22-year-old contestants in the early 1990s, according to allegations detailed in the Boston Globe.
Cathy Heller, who last year told the Guardian that Trump forcibly kissed the side of her mouth during a brunch at Mar-a-Lago in 1997, expressed dismay that “nothing stuck” against him.
Heller said she wondered whether the fame of Weinstein’s accusers — who include Oscar winners such as Gwyneth Paltrow — played a role in how their claims were received.
“A lot of them were actresses we’ve all heard of,” said Heller, 64. “When it’s a celebrity, it has more weight than just someone who he met at Mar-a-Lago or a beauty pageant contestant. They’re not people we’ve heard of. And that, in our society, has much more weight because they’re famous.”
Heller said Weinstein’s removal from his production company made her glad that “finally something was really done and a guy finally got his dues, his just deserts,” she said. “We’ll see about Trump. It’s never too late.”
McGillivray, now 37, said she was initially afraid to speak out, calling it “petrifying.” But she said she felt driven by a patriotic duty — as well as a desire to do right by her teenage daughter.
“I wanted to be heard,” said McGillivray, who lives in Palm Springs, Fla., not far from Mar-a-Lago, the president’s private club.
Allegations about Trump’s behavior toward women became an issue early in his candidacy and lingered for months, exploding in early October when The Washington Post published the 2005 “Access Hollywood” video in which he boasted in vulgar terms about kissing women and grabbing them by the genitals. The then-GOP nominee called the remarks “locker-room banter,” adding: “I apologize if anyone was offended.”
That disclosure was followed by accusations concerning incidents alleged to have occurred over several decades, starting in the early 1980s and continuing until at least 2007. The accusers included several women whose careers depended on Trump, in addition to women he encountered by happenstance.
Polls showed that a clear majority of voters came to believe that Trump had committed the kind of behavior described by his accusers.
A Washington Post poll three weeks before the election found that more than two-thirds of registered voters — including almost half of Republicans — thought that Trump probably had made unwanted sexual advances toward women.
But the specific allegations did little to budge an electorate that had become almost tribal in its divisions.
“Sexual abuse should not be a partisan issue, but it frequently is,” said conservative commentator Amanda Carpenter. “That to me is maddening, just to watch women become fodder, to watch women become cannon fodder for these men. It’s gut-wrenching.”
After the allegations against Weinstein were made public, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel argued on CNN that Trump’s alleged offenses were “not even comparable” to Weinstein’s, adding that “to even make that comparison is disrespectful to the president.”
McDaniel tried to turn the Weinstein case on the Democrats whose campaigns he had helped finance, tweeting on Oct. 7: “Whose side is Hillary Clinton on: Harvey Weinstein’s or his victims?”
Unlike Weinstein, Trump responded to the accusations against him with vehement denials and fierce counterpunching. Although he apologized for his comments heard on the “Access Hollywood” tape, he attacked the credibility of the women making specific claims.
Trump deemed their accounts a “total fabrication,” “totally and absolutely false” and “pure fiction.” In the cases of two of the women, he urged the public to judge whether they were attractive enough for him to have assaulted them.
“Believe me: She would not be my first choice. That I can tell you,” he said of Leeds.
Trump’s pushback led one of his accusers, Summer Zervos, a former contestant on Trump’s reality television show, “The Apprentice,” to file a defamation lawsuit against him three days before he took the oath of office.
Zervos first appeared weeks before the election at a news conference with her attorney, Gloria Allred, and accused Trump of aggressively kissing her and groping her breasts during a 2007 meeting that took place when she was seeking a job at his company.
In court documents, Zervos’s attorneys said Trump defamed her by labeling his accusers liars. They have sought to subpoena documents from Trump’s campaign related to any of the women accusing him of inappropriate sexual contact. “Summer has really suffered, and she deserves to have her reputation restored,” said Allred, who also represents other women who have accused Trump.
Asked this week about the case, Trump called it “totally fake news.”
“It’s just fake,” he said during a Rose Garden news conference. “It’s fake. It’s made-up stuff, and it’s disgraceful, what happens, but that happens in the — that happens in the world of politics.”
Trump’s lawyers are seeking to have the case dismissed.
[In ‘Apprentice’ defamation case, Trump will argue he is immune from lawsuits in state courts until he leaves office]
The next brief is due on Oct. 31, and sometime after that, a judge in New York state, where the suit was filed, is expected to rule on whether the case will proceed.
History suggests that an ongoing court case could be perilous for a sitting president. The last deposition of one was in another sexual harassment case, when Bill Clinton was questioned for six hours in January 1998 by lawyers for former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones. She claimed that Clinton, while governor in 1991, had exposed his genitals to her in a Little Rock hotel room.
Clinton paid Jones $800,000 to settle the case without admitting guilt, but during that deposition, he was asked about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and gave false statements that led to his impeachment.
The same factor that helped Clinton survive impeachment and remain in office helped Trump overcome the accusations of misconduct against him, said Elaine Kamarck, a former Clinton White House official who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
“The fact is, there were bigger issues at play,” Kamarck said. “Nobody expected him to be a good guy. People knew what kind of guy he was.”
Leeds, now 75, said the furor over her decision to come forward last year in the New York Times lasted several months, “longer than I imagined.” In the aftermath, she said, younger women approached her to thank her for her bravery. Many told her they have agonized over whether to do the same.
“I thought things were better in that area, with more women in the workplace,” Leeds said. But she has come to the conclusion that the culture that fostered experiences like the one she claims to have had with Trump “is still very strong and very prevalent, and that was discouraging.”
Scott Clement, Alice Crites and Julie Tate contributed to this report.