President Donald Trump faces more than 20 allegations of sexual misconduct and assault — but during this election cycle, it’s an issue that was rarely highlighted. (Trump has denied all allegations.)
“At the national levels, we haven’t seen” the same focus as in 2016, says Purdue University political science professor Nadia Brown. “I wonder if it is something that Republicans — or even perhaps the country — feels like it was litigated, and relitigated in 2018 with Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh’s hearing.”
Brown notes that the two political parties have taken noticeably different approaches to confronting sexual misconduct by elected officials, with Republicans more willing to cast doubt on potential allegations, while Democrats have deemed them disqualifying. She says, however, that she hasn’t seen either focus heavily on Trump’s allegations during the 2020 campaign, despite the Me Too movement, which took off during his presidency. The issue did receive some recent scrutiny when Trump’s Justice Department sought to block a defamation suit by E. Jean Carroll, who has accused Trump of rape.
The emergence of former Senate staffer Tara Reade’s sexual assault allegation against Biden may have made any focus on the president more complicated for Democrats, as attention on the claim against Biden has also faded. As Vox’s Anna North has reported, Reade in March accused Biden of sexual assault that she said took place in 1993. The candidate and his campaign have repeatedly denied the allegation. “It is not true. I’m saying unequivocally, it never, never happened,” Biden said in a May Morning Joe interview.
Reade’s allegation has since been examined by journalists. Separately, reporters have scrutinized the credentials Reade used in court while testifying as an expert witness on domestic violence cases. Reade has testified that she obtained a bachelor’s degree from Antioch University, but the college said it does not have a record of her graduating. Reade has contested Antioch’s statement and said she received a bachelor’s degree there.
Still, the allegations against Trump are an issue that American voters at least say they’re thinking about: According to an October survey from Data for Progress, a majority of voters — 55 percent — think these allegations are a factor that people should weigh when considering Trump’s candidacy.
Brown explains why she thinks Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct hasn’t gotten as much attention in 2020, and lays out her hopes for greater accountability moving forward. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Is it your impression that there is less focus on sexual misconduct allegations against Trump in 2020 compared to 2016? And why do you think that is?
At the national levels, we haven’t seen [the same focus]. And it’s also not a repeated theme that we’re seeing with donors, either. I think you would see something from women’s networks to say, “Let’s vote this person out of office,” or, “Don’t forget he’s using his own DOJ to persecute and silence women who have credibly accused him of sexual harassment or rape.” None of that has happened.
And then kind of taking a step back or meta-analysis from this: I wonder if it is something that Republicans, or even perhaps the country, feels like it was litigated and relitigated in 2018 with Justice Kavanaugh’s hearing — that sexual assault and violence is something that Americans do not think will bar you from holding political office.
So, Joe Biden this summer, a woman came forward and said that he assaulted her. And that really didn’t make any headway. I thought it would. And during the Democratic National Convention, also silent around issues of Me Too. I guess the larger question is: Not just Trump, but are we as Americans over this in terms of elected officials?
[Note: In May, Vox’s Laura McGann published a report reviewing the corroboration that Reade provided on her sexual assault allegation against Biden. “I wanted to believe Reade when she first came to me, and I worked hard to find the evidence to make certain others would believe her, too,” McGann wrote. “I couldn’t find it. None of that means Reade is lying, but it leaves us in the limbo of Me Too: a story that may be true but that we can’t prove.” Reade has maintained her allegation.]
Do you think that Americans are?
I hope not. I think your pointed question may indicate that this isn’t receiving a lot of news coverage, a lot of airtime. The candidates aren’t speaking about this.
And even if we are not as focused on Trump’s own indiscretions, his weaponization of the Department of Justice for his own political purposes around sexual assault is alarming. Biden brought this up during his [October] town hall. But for the larger part, this has largely remained silent.
How would you characterize the way that leaders in both parties have handled the allegations of sexual misconduct against Trump?
My colleagues at USC, Jane Junn and Christian Grose, have a paper that’s been under review for a while, and I saw versions of it. What their findings are showing is that Republicans are more likely to, I don’t want to say “blame the victim,” but that’s basically the way to put it, like, “What was this person doing that could have put them in a predicament to be raped or sexually assaulted?”
And then to weigh that candidate to say, “Well, I know so-and-so, he’s a good person, he would not have done this.” Or if they did that, that’s, you know, one person, and look at what all the questionable decisions might have been in her life. And so that’s that, and this person is really going to support issues that I care about as opposed to, you know, the opposition.
So Republicans are doing some mental gymnastics around this issue. Whereas Democrats are pretty uniformly, like, “We don’t tolerate this, this is not the party that we want to be. And if you have been found to do this, or even are credibly accused, I know I’m not going to vote for you.” And it’s that line in the sand.
However, Democratic men are not as resolute. They still are like, “Well, tell me a little bit about what happened,” although they are quicker to say this is not something I want to be voting for, this is not something I want to be associated with.
So that’s voters, but the political parties really mirror this because their citizens are taking their cues from the elites.
So Democrats, remember [former Sen.] Al Franken, right? It’s like, “You’re gone.” Although Al Franken has done a lot of good things, legislative-wise, for progressives and women, but he did some reprehensible things, and Democrats said we will sacrifice the policy outcomes because we find your personal behavior to be morally reprehensible.
Whereas Republicans are saying the opposite, like, “You are a seat that we need. We don’t like what you’re doing, and we’ll hold our nose.” And they’re clearly doing that with Trump.
Do you think the allegation that was raised against Joe Biden makes it tougher for Democrats to try to raise awareness about the allegations against Trump and make that a larger issue in his candidacy?
I don’t know, because it’s not like Republicans have a leg to stand on, either, right? So let’s say Democrats do go hard on this. And Trump turns it back and says, or any Republican turns it back and says, “But look at Joe Biden’s allegations.” I mean, there’s a list of women who have accused Trump of sexual harassment. And there’s the smoking gun with the Access Hollywood tapes. Joe Biden doesn’t have that.
What did you make of the recent reaction to the allegation brought forward against Trump by former model Amy Dorris? It felt like it was just added to the list and should have gotten more attention.
On the political side, I think it’s just fatigue. We’re like, “Yeah, we’ll add it to the list,” like you said. Like, “What else hasn’t he done? Who else hasn’t he offended?”
But the other part that makes me so sad is for survivors out there. Why would you come forward? It doesn’t seem to change the political trajectory. You are going to open yourself up to a bunch of scrutiny, and for what? It’s not as if the justice that you want to see served happens. And this is even more telling for women of color. Why do this to yourself?
My fear is that we’ll just go back [to being] in the dark, that powerful folks, men and women included, will be able to harass people, to use mea culpa, that “I didn’t know this was wrong to do.” And we’ll just go about our business.
I would like much more of a recognition of what male privilege is and what power looks like and how sexual harassment is part of that power imbalance and inequity.
Correction, November 3: This article previously cited a story that alleged Reade lied under oath. It has been corrected to reflect that Reade stated in court that she had a bachelor’s degree from Antioch University, while the institution says it does not have a record of her graduating.