Accusers: if Weinstein falls after sex crime claims, can Teflon Don?
Almost a year after 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 Donald] Trump just continues to be the Teflon Don,” said Leeds, who claims she was groped 30 years ago on a plane by the man who now sits in the Oval Office.
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 his private club in Florida, 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 Trump, who was still the Republican presidential candidate at the time, of unwanted touching or kissing. He called the charges “pure fiction” and the women “horrible liars”.
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 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.
Their claims did not stop him climbing to the most powerful office in the world.
The Weinstein scandal, which has featured graphic accounts of assault from a string of celebrity accusers, has sparked a debate about sexual harassment. Many women have taken to social media to tell their own stories, and calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline have risen sharply.
But for Trump’s accusers, their allegations have not had the same effect.
Trump, unlike Weinstein, was able to deflect their claims. He has never followed through with his vow to sue his accusers or produce “substantial evidence” he said would refute their claims.
Allegations against the president have so far only led to one lawsuit filed by a woman 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 any evidence 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 organised beauty pageants for Trump and sued him in 1997, claiming he 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 a make-up 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.
Sad you had to go through it. My pain is everyday with bastard Trump as President. No one gets it unless it happens to them. NO one!
— Jill Harth (@jillharth) October 10, 2017
Cathy Heller, who last year said Trump forcibly kissed her in 1997, expressed dismay that “nothing stuck” on him. She notes the fame of Weinstein’s accusers, who include actress Gwyneth Paltrow.
“When it’s a celebrity, it has more weight than just someone who he met at Mar-a-Lago or a beauty pageant contestant,” said Heller, 64.
She 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 desserts”.
“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, Florida, not far from Mar-a-Lago.
Allegations about Trump’s behaviour towards women became an issue early in his candidacy and lingered for months before exploding when The Washington Post published a 2005 video in which he boasted about grabbing women by the genitals and kissing them. He called the remarks “locker room banter” and apologised.
That disclosure was followed by a string of accusations concerning incidents alleged to have occurred over several decades, starting in the early 1980s and continuing until at least 2007. The accusers included women whose careers depended on Trump, in addition to women he met by chance.
Polls showed that most voters thought Trump had committed the kind of behaviour 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 Trump had probably made unwanted sexual advances towards women.
But the allegations did little to budge the electorate.
“Sexual abuse should not be a partisan issue, but it frequently is,” said conservative commentator Amanda Carpenter. “That to me is maddening … to watch women become cannon fodder for these men. It’s gut-wrenching.”
After the allegations against Weinstein surfaced, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel argued that Trump’s alleged offences were “not even comparable” to Weinstein’s, adding that “to even make that comparison is disrespectful to the president”.
She tried to turn the Weinstein case on the Democrats whose campaigns he helped finance, tweeting on October 7: “Whose side is Hillary Clinton on: Harvey Weinstein’s or his victims?”
Unlike Weinstein, Trump responded to accusations against him with vehement denials and attacked the credibility of the women.
Trump deemed their accounts a “total fabrication”, “totally and absolutely false” and “pure fiction”. In some cases, he questioned whether they were attractive enough for him to have assaulted them.
“Believe me, she would not be my first choice,” he said of Leeds.
Trump’s resistance led one of his accusers, Summer Zervos, a former contestant on Trump’s television show The Apprentice, to file a defamation lawsuit against him three days before he took the oath of office.
Zervos accused Trump of kissing her and groping her breasts in 2007. Her lawyers said Trump defamed her by labelling 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 about the case, Trump called it “totally fake news”.
“It’s made-up stuff and it’s disgraceful what happens, but that happens … in the world of politics,” he told a press conference.
His lawyers are trying to have the case dismissed.
The next brief is due on October 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 ultimately paid Jones US$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,” she said. “Nobody expected him to be a good guy. People knew what kind of guy he was.”
Leeds, now 75, said the furore 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 agonised 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.”