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The sexual assault allegations against Donald Trump, explained

Donald Trump Holds Rally In Wilkes-Barre, PA Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

It wasn’t enough for Donald Trump to broadcast on Facebook Live with three women who’d accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct just before he took the stage for the second presidential debate. In an act of intimidation to Hillary Clinton, Trump apparently wanted the accusers sitting in his family’s box — until the debate organizers threatened to throw them out.

Not only did Trump create a spectacle, he set a new standard for what should matter in a presidential campaign. By putting Bill Clinton’s accusers front and center in his latest case against Hillary Clinton, Trump was arguing that allegations of sexual misconduct against someone close to a presidential candidate — not convictions, or even necessarily credible accusations — should be a top-tier issue when judging someone’s fitness for office.

For Trump, this is a high-risk strategy. Like Bill Clinton, he’s been the subject of several accusations of sexual misconduct. His ex-wife once claimed he raped her. A former business partner sued him for sexual harassment. Crew members from The Apprentice detailed a hostile work environment. And a pending lawsuit against him claimed he raped a 13-year-old girl.

None of these claims have been proven in a court of law. Not all of them even seem plausible. But not all of the accusations against Clinton that Trump highlighted before the debate were airtight, either; quite a bit of doubt has been cast on Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones’s allegations. If the standard Trump is setting is that any accusation of sexual misconduct within a presidential candidate’s inner circle is enough to disqualify that candidate from higher office, Trump himself isn’t capable of meeting it.

Jill Harth says Trump groped her in his daughter’s bedroom

The most prominent accusation against Trump comes from Jill Harth, a makeup artist who accused Trump of harassing her and grabbing her against her will in a 1997 lawsuit.

In 1992, Harth was working for the American Dream Festival, a pageant owned by her then-boyfriend that was trying to strike a deal with Donald Trump to hold its event at a Trump hotel in Atlantic City. Trump started pursuing Harth in an escalating campaign of harassment that, according to Harth, ended with an attempted sexual assault in his daughter’s bedroom.

At two business dinners, Harth said in a lawsuit, Trump put his hand on her thigh and reached his hand up her leg to try to grope her in the crotch. (After the first dinner, she alleges, he started referring to himself as her “new boyfriend.”) He tried to lure her to Trump Tower for late-night meetings and called and demanded that she sleep with him.

Then, Harth said, he tried to assault her: In January 1993, according to the lawsuit, Trump stopped her from leaving Mar-a-Lago, which she was visiting on a tour, and “forcibly removed” her to a bedroom, where he kissed her and groped her. She said in the lawsuit that Trump’s unwanted attention caused her to vomit.

The lawsuit says Trump attempted to rape Harth, but Harth, in interviews this year, has described him as groping her and kissing her. She told the Guardian in July:

He pushed me up against the wall, and had his hands all over me and tried to get up my dress again, and I had to physically say: “What are you doing? Stop it.” It was a shocking thing to have him do this because he knew I was with George, he knew they were in the next room. And how could he be doing this when I’m there for business?

The lawsuit accuses Trump of harassing other women, including sneaking into the bedroom of another guest at Mar-a-Lago and groping her in her bed. Harth now says that Trump didn’t seem to realize the seriousness of what he was doing and genuinely seemed to think she was interested: “His mind was in a totally different place than mine,” Harth told the New York Times’ Nick Kristof. “He thinks he’s God’s gift to women.”

Trump denied the allegations at the time, saying Harth was “obsessed” with him. Harth dropped her lawsuit after Trump settled another lawsuit (alleging breach of contract rather than sexual harassment) related to the American Dream Festival. She later dated Trump in 1998, Kristof reported, wrote supportive letters to the Trump campaign, and sought a job doing Trump’s hair and makeup.

But Harth went public with her allegations again in July, angry that Trump had dismissed her story when she told it to the New York Times.

What she says about her experience — that Trump groped her at business dinners, then grabbed her in his daughter’s room at Mar-a-Lago — has been consistent since the 1997 lawsuit, for which she gave a deposition under oath. George Houraney, Harth’s business partner whom she later married, divorced, and is no longer in contact with, gave a separate but near-identical account, Kristof wrote.

Trump has continued to deny the allegations, which were never proven in court. But what Harth describes matches with his account of his own conduct from the secret recording published Friday: “Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab ’em by the pussy.”

Ivana Trump once said her ex-husband raped her

Ivana Trump at a dinner benefiting her son's foundation
Ivana Trump in 2015, 23 years after her divorce.
Grant Lamos IV/Getty Images

In a deposition in their 1992 divorce, Ivana Trump, Trump’s first wife, described a horrific scene in which Trump violently forced her to have sex with him. According to the 1993 Trump biography Lost Tycoon by Harry Hurt III, Trump had surgery in 1989 to remove a bald spot with a plastic surgeon Ivana had used. (Trump denies having this surgery.) The surgery was painful, and Trump took his anger out on Ivana, The Daily Beast wrote in 2015:

What followed was a “violent assault,” according to Lost Tycoon. Donald held back Ivana’s arms and began to pull out fistfuls of hair from her scalp, as if to mirror the pain he felt from his own operation. He tore off her clothes and unzipped his pants.

“Then he jams his penis inside her for the first time in more than sixteen months. Ivana is terrified… It is a violent assault,” Hurt writes. “According to versions she repeats to some of her closest confidantes, ‘he raped me.’”

Following the incident, Ivana ran upstairs, hid behind a locked door, and remained there “crying for the rest of night.” When she returned to the master bedroom in the morning, he was there.

“As she looks in horror at the ripped-out hair scattered all over the bed, he glares at her and asks with menacing casualness: ‘Does it hurt?’” Hurt writes.

Ivana Trump initially described this in her deposition as rape. She softened that description before Lost Tycoon was published, saying that she “felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited towards me, was absent,” but that she was not accusing Trump of a crime.

Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, reacted to the Daily Beast story by saying “by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse” — which is not true. (Trump later distanced himself from Cohen’s comments.)

In a statement in July 2015, Ivana Trump said her story was “totally without merit” and that the comments were made “at a time of very high tension during my divorce from Donald.” But she hasn’t retracted the very specific description of violent sex, that, if it happened the way she described, would constitute sexual assault.

An ongoing lawsuit claims Donald Trump raped a 13-year-old girl — but it’s very sketchy

The most explosive allegation about Donald Trump during his race for the presidency is that he raped a 13-year-old girl at a 1994 orgy hosted by Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire who was convicted in 2008 of soliciting an underage girl for prostitution and has been accused of having sex with more than 30 underage girls.

That accusation was at the center of a federal lawsuit filed in June against Trump in New York. (A similar lawsuit was dismissed for technical reasons in California.) And there are good reasons to think that the accusation is false.

The lawsuit, filed by an anonymous woman calling herself “Katie Johnson,” claims that when Johnson was 13, Epstein lured her to parties at his apartment by promising “money and a modeling career.” During four of those parties in 1994, Johnson alleges, Trump had sex with her, including violently raping her in a “savage sexual attack.” (The lawsuit in California was more lurid, accusing Trump of, among other things, forcing Johnson to engage in same-sex relations with another young girl.)

The court filings included a statement from “Tiffany Doe,” another anonymous woman, who said that she witnessed the sex and procured the young girls for the parties, and “Joan Doe,” a classmate of the victim who said she was told about the rapes during the following school year.

These are serious accusations. But the lawsuit raises a lot of red flags that suggest it is at the very least being promoted by people who are seeking attention or have a political axe to grind.

This spring, a man called “Al Taylor” sent a video of a woman with a blurred face and blonde wig recounting the allegations against Trump to news outlets, saying he wanted $1 million for it. Taylor, the Guardian reported, was actually Norm Lubow, a former producer on the Jerry Springer show who has a history of using fake names and disguises to make juicy, false claims about celebrities.

Lubow has, in the past, falsely claimed to represent Casey Anthony, the Florida woman accused of killing her 2-year-old daughter; taken credit for a stunt actually pulled off by German artists; claimed he sold cocaine to OJ Simpson; and promoted a theory that Courtney Love had Kurt Cobain murdered.

Aside from the video Taylor was promoting, Johnson hasn’t made herself available for interviews (even anonymously), nor have the other two witnesses including in the filing. Jezebel’s Anna Merlan, who has written about the case, said on Twitter that a district attorney who reached out to the lawsuit backers asking to speak with Johnson was rebuffed. The address on the California lawsuit was for a foreclosed house where no one lives.

The lawsuit was promoted to the media by an anti-Trump, anti-abortion activist named Steve Baer, a conservative activist and donor with a very influential email list. Baer too, has a history of passing around “whoa if true” rumors: Last year, he was a key figure in spreading the notion that US Rep. Kevin McCarthy was having an extramarital affair with a woman in Congress when McCarthy was a candidate to become speaker of the House. There was no evidence that the rumors were true, but Baer sent “multiple emails” to “high-powered Republicans” based on a report from Charles C. Johnson’s GotNews, and the rumors eventually forced McCarthy out of the race.

To sum up: The allegations against Trump are from an anonymous plaintiff who refuses to give interviews or to speak to a district attorney, represented by a public spokesman with a false name and a history of making up inflammatory stories about celebrities. The rumors were promoted to the media by a conservative anti-Trump gadfly who, just a year ago, used another evidence-free rumor to accomplish his political goals.

So most media outlets haven’t written about the Katie Johnson lawsuit. The allegations seem so likely to be untrue that even writing the words “Trump” and “allegedly raped a 13-year-old” in the same sentence feels sort of icky.

That’s why Trump’s strategy in bringing up Bill Clinton’s alleged misconduct is risky. He’s vastly lowering the bar for how much evidence is needed to make something a top-tier issue in the presidential race.

It would be weird and inappropriate for Clinton to open the next debate arguing that Trump not only has a history of harassing women (for which there is a lot of evidence), but also he was probably a child molester (for which there is none). But if she did, she’d be playing out of the same playbook he used against her Sunday night.

Correction: A previous version of this story didn’t note the witness statements included in the lawsuit against Trump alleging he raped a 13-year-old girl.

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