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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi answers questions during her weekly news conference at the Capitol on June 5, 2019.
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Democrats’ reluctance to investigate E. Jean Carroll’s sexual assault allegation against Trump, explained

They haven’t held any hearings.

Top Democrats believe E. Jean Carroll, the latest Donald Trump accuser, but they’re reluctant to do anything about it.

“I don’t know the person — it doesn’t matter if I did or not. I respect that, but I don’t know what Congress’s role would be in this,” said House Speaker Nance Pelosi at a recent weekly press conference. “But in any of these things, this is not about what Congress would do, this is about what the president’s own party would do. You’d really have to ask them.”

Chuck Schumer, the top Democrat in the Senate, told the Washington Post that “every allegation like this should be taken seriously,” though he stopped short of suggesting further action. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) was more direct. “It’s not particularly new news, so I don’t know,” she said. “I think it stands on its own. ... I don’t think we need to take action.”

“This is something the founders never envisioned; there’s not a mechanism here, outside impeachment,” a Democratic aide told Vox. While this viewpoint is getting more traction in the House, it’s far from a universal opinion among Democrats. The aide added that with the leak of the Access Hollywood tape during the 2016 race, much of the public has known this side of Trump before he was elected. “The guy won a presidential campaign with these accusations public.”

One House committee chair tasked with executive branch oversight was similarly hesitant.

“Everybody keeps asking me the same question and I’m not prepared to answer that yet,” House Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings told Vox. “Every single reporter wants to know about that. And we haven’t gotten there. I’ve got 85 investigations going on.”

Carroll, a popular advice columnist, published a piece in New York magazine in June where she described an unwanted sexual encounter with Trump in a Manhattan department store dressing room more than 20 years ago. She is the 22nd woman to come forward publicly with an account of sexual misconduct by the president.

She also said she’d be open to speaking with the Senate about the allegations she raised. What’s still unclear, however, is whether lawmakers would consider conducting such an inquiry.

Democrats have condemned Trump’s behavior with women, and they’ve also stood by women who’ve accused him of sexual assault and other forms of abuse.

But Democrats have yet to take on Trump’s alleged sexual assault in hearing rooms. They’ve held no hearings in the Senate or the House (which they control) on the accusations of sexual assault against Trump. No women have been asked to testify. Trump hasn’t been asked to respond to questions from members of Congress.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer walk through the Capitol’s Statuary Hall before a news conference on January 9, 2019.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

It might seem odd that in a moment when women are leading a sustained resistance to the Trump administration that Democrats in Congress wouldn’t take up the issue more forcefully. But the politics aren’t so clear cut.

The party’s big victory in the House in 2018 was more about policy — particularly health care — than Trump’s legal or moral problems. And the Brett Kavanaugh hearings loom large for many Democrats. Christine Blasey Ford endured hours of grueling testimony, she was mocked by the president, and she sustained death threats. Kavanaugh got a seat on the Supreme Court anyway, and Republicans didn’t pay a political price. It’s a legitimate question as to whether it’s worth putting more women in a similar situation for no political or practical gain.

As Democrats zero in on their No. 1 priority of defeating Trump in 2020, they’re reluctant to make any moves that won’t improve their chances of winning.

Democrats condemn Trump’s behavior — but seem resistant to move forward with other action

While speaking with Democrats in the House and Senate, we heard the same kinds of responses over and over: Although lawmakers condemn the allegations against Trump, they aren’t sure investigating them is a job for Congress.

“I think it’s more for the courts,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) told Vox. “I think that’s where those things should be adjudicated.” Khanna’s response is far from unique.

“We’re going to start acting as a court? That’s improper,” the Democratic aide told Vox. “We can’t start doing that on matters like this, there’s separation of powers for a reason. From an institutional standpoint, it would look like an overreach.”

Most Democrats Vox interviewed say they haven’t heard of the new accusations from Carroll or don’t think congressional hearings are the right venue to scrutinize them. And then there’s a small fraction who say that Congress should take this on.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), a longtime champion of the #MeToo movement and member of the House Oversight Committee, has been pushing for a congressional investigation. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), an Oversight Committee member as well, has also said she thinks evaluating the allegations of sexual misconduct would be a central piece of any potential impeachment inquiry.

“I think there’s an important role. If there’s a crime committed, we need to hold him accountable. Nobody’s above the law,” Tlaib told Vox.

President Donald Trump delivering the State of the Union address before members of Congress in the US Capitol on February 5, 2019.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-CA), a constitutional scholar and high-profile member of the House Judiciary Committee, said the fact that this allegation is about something that happened over 20 years ago and just surfacing now is probably the only thing that’s keeping it from turning into a major scandal that could possibly lead to impeachment.

“The constitutional standard invites us to think about crimes against the state, and the Republicans impeached Bill Clinton over what I call low crimes and misdemeanors, lying about sex,” Raskin said. “Now, a rape allegation challenges the whole paradigm. A rape is obviously a crime. The president is lucky, I suppose, that those allegations relate to something that happened many years ago, and he’s able to shroud it in his usual denials and deflections.”

Raskin told Vox there’s not been much discussion within the House Democratic caucus about pursuing an investigation into Carroll’s allegations, or the allegations of the 21 other women who have accused the president of sexual misconduct. But he said there’s a possible policy avenue for Congress to explore: examining the problem of unprosecuted sexual violence in America.

“I think that what took place with Trump and now more than a dozen accusers is something that should be of legislative concern to Congress, because it raises the whole problem of what to do about the epidemic of unprosecuted sexual violence and harassment,” Raskin said. “The president is pretty much the poster boy for that at this point. So we’ve got our hands full with this president, but I don’t think that’s something that’s off limits in any way.”

It’s worth noting that lawmaker responses are, in part, driven by the fact that it’s not clear exactly what Congress’s role would be, even though oversight of the president is a central responsibility of the legislative branch.

As HuffPost’s Zach Carter writes, while the next steps aren’t apparent, there are a couple of paths lawmakers could take:

It is not obvious precisely what Congress should do about it. But there are plenty of oversight options available to Democrats, ranging from private interviews with Carroll to public hearings to launching an investigation and publishing an official report.

Moderates won on the issues, not by vilifying Trump

The reluctance to probe these allegations further in Congress could also be driven by the same political calculus Democrats have been taking toward impeachment: While they value the need to hold Trump accountable, they don’t see vilifying the president as a winning political issue.

“Over in the House, the speaker has a singleminded focus on getting Trump out of office and doesn’t want to do anything that may, in fact, help Trump rally his base more than they may already be doing,” a former top Democratic leadership aide told Vox. “She’s afraid that if they go ahead with impeachment hearings it’s going to do damage to the majority makers — the Democrats who won in Trump-friendly districts. In the end, that’s what it all comes down to.”

A lot of this logic can be tied back to the 2018 midterms. While progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were some of the most well-known stars to emerge from that election, many of the races that helped Democrats retake the House were ultimately won by moderates in battleground districts.

As Democrats’ thinking goes, voters in those moderate districts — including independents and moderate Republicans — are more focused on specific policy issues like preserving insurance protections for individuals with preexisting conditions. They’re less interested, however, in attacking Trump.

“Most of the freshmen come from swing districts,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), who beat four-term incumbent Republican Leonard Lance by 5 points in 2018, previously told Vox. “We come from places where voters want us to focus on getting things done that can actually be achieved.”

It’s not only moderates who have this view. Khanna, who said he believes this is a criminal matter that should be handled by the courts, is the vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Still, moderates who are staring down tough reelections in 2020 want their voters to know about their attempts to work on issues like lowering prescription drug costs and infrastructure, not digging into Trump’s history of sexual misconduct.

Democrats are betting that keeping the focus on policy issues, rather than the president, will be the best way to hang on to voter support come 2020.

Kavanaugh looms large

Both Democrats and Republicans are also still stinging from the exceedingly polarizing and highly emotional confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, which took place last year.

The Kavanaugh hearings not only underscored a major divide between the two parties, seemingly supercharging both the Democratic and Republican bases before the midterms, they also resulted in a devastating conclusion for some Democrats.

While Christine Blasey Ford subjected herself to extensive public scrutiny — and even death threats — the outcome of the process was ultimately the same: Kavanaugh was confirmed and now sits on the Supreme Court.

It’s possible another review probing allegations against Trump could result in a similar outcome. Carroll could further raise awareness of these allegations, but she’d also be opening herself up to additional attacks, even as the president remains relatively unscathed.

“If you look back at congressional hearings involving sexual assault, very few people come out looking good after them,” said the former Democratic aide. “It would get so ugly that no one would walk away looking good, and that benefits Trump.”

That doesn’t mean some Democrats don’t feel disappointed

But no matter the rational political argument or the procedural constraints, Democrats’ unwillingness to confront these sexual misconduct allegations head on can feel like the party lacks courage.

For too long, victims of sexual misconduct and assault have fought to have their stories about sexual misconduct heard — and believed. Lawmakers’ openness to acknowledging them while doing nothing is frustrating, and painful. And as some progressive advocates have pointed out, this reluctance establishes a shocking norm.

“We have a duty as Democrats and as Americans to not let this become normal,” progressive strategist and former Harry Reid aide Rebecca Katz told Vox. “If House Democrats, who have all this power, if they can’t stand up to Donald Trump, what kind of message does that send to the rest of us?”

Demonstrators rally outside the US Supreme Court in protest of then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh on October 4, 2018.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Congress’s decision to stand back as these allegations have been levied against the president can ultimately send a demeaning message — even if that’s not the intention. It suggests that the violations that women are alleging aren’t even worth the same time and energy as the subpoena request of a White House official.

This value judgment is not the one that lawmakers necessarily intend to invoke, but it is the one that some liberals are seeing in the overall response. The lawmaker reactions are just the latest example of people in power saying that they “believe” women while refusing to follow through on pursuing consequences.

“If House Democrats don’t hold the president accountable, no one will,” Katz said.

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