On October 7, 2016, the Washington Post released a videotape of Donald Trump and Billy Bush hanging out on a bus.
“You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them,” Trump said on the tape, filmed in 2005 when Bush was an Access Hollywood host and Trump was hosting The Apprentice. “It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”
“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump continued, as Bush laughed. “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
In the year since the tape was released, we’ve seen several powerful men accused of the kind of behavior Trump described — Harvey Weinstein is just the latest. Many women have come forward to talk about their experiences, and as many have pointed out, it’s a hopeful sign that they’ve been able to come forward at all. But before we tell ourselves our society is no longer safe for harassers, let’s remember what happened to Donald Trump after he essentially bragged about assaulting women: almost nothing.
After the tape was released, Billy Bush had to leave Today, where he had been a host. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) withdrew his endorsement of Trump. “As the father of three daughters,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said, “I strongly believe that Trump needs to apologize directly to women and girls everywhere.”
Trump did apologize, saying, “anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am.” Beyond some public embarrassment, however, he faced few real repercussions. Despite his comments on the tape, despite the women who later said he had actually done some of what he bragged about, and despite a litany of racist and sexist comments made in public for all to see, Trump is now president of the United States. On Friday, his administration released regulations significantly weakening the contraceptive coverage mandate, thereby threatening birth control access for women and girls around the country.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, the New York Times published an exposé detailing multiple allegations of sexual harassment against the producer Harvey Weinstein, some of them recent and some dating back decades. According to the Hollywood Reporter, another such exposé is in the works at the New Yorker. The allegations appear to match rumors that have been circulating about Weinstein for years, as Vox’s Constance Grady notes. Weinstein has apologized, and has retained a “team of people,” including therapists and Lisa Bloom, a lawyer who has represented victims of sexual harassment. He has also promised to sue the Times.
It’s not clear what consequences Weinstein will face for his alleged harassment. According to the Times, he is planning to take a leave of absence from the Weinstein Company, of which he and his brother together own 42 percent. He has also said he plans to campaign against the National Rifle Association and that he is making a film about the president.
It can feel cathartic to see allegations that swirled for so long beneath the surface finally made public. At the same time, stories like Weinstein’s are a reminder that harassment by powerful men too often goes unchecked for years, decades, a lifetime. Many women have responded to the Times story with stories of their own of men who got away with too much for too long. As writer Ann Friedman put it on Twitter, “every industry has at least one of these powerful creeps. Look around. Do you know who the Weinstein is?”
At the Cut, Rebecca Traister argues that “something has changed” in our culture, as women increasingly come forward to say publicly what they once might have whispered among themselves. But she also notes that the allegations against Weinstein have only become public now that he has “lost power in the movie industry, is no longer the titan of independent film, the indie mogul who could make or break an actor’s Oscar chances.”
“Perhaps only a weakening of Weinstein’s grip permitted his expensive self-crafted armor to finally be pierced,” she writes.
Some men in power — Traister mentions Bill O’Reilly and Bill Cosby — have been brought low (or at least lower, as Cosby has so far avoided jail time) by accusations of harassment and assault. Many others remain.
The infamous Access Hollywood video doesn’t end with Trump’s comments about grabbing women “by the pussy.” It continues for several minutes, as Bush and Trump exit the bus and walk with actress Arianne Zucker to the set of the soap opera Days of Our Lives. On the bus, the two men can be heard discussing Zucker’s attractiveness, and Trump says, “I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her.” Off the bus, in her presence, the men are more polite, but as the three interact, the viewer gets a glimpse of what many women have to deal with every day.
First Bush requests that Zucker give each of them a hug. Later, Bush asks her to choose: Who would she pick, he asks, “if you had to take one of us as a date?”
“I’ll have to take the Fifth on that one,” she says.
This is all pretty tame compared with Trump’s earlier comments, or with some of the allegations against Weinstein. But it’s an example of the kind of low-grade harassment women put up with — and respond to with a smile — all the time. It’s telling that Zucker said last year that she was unsurprised to hear what Trump was saying about her and other women behind her back. “With that type of personality, I wasn’t shocked,” she said.
Countless women continue to go to work and put up with sexist jokes, unwanted hugs, comments that make them uncomfortable, small incidents that may be easy to brush off individually but that become a constant drain on women’s productivity, drive, and joy. Some of those women will experience larger incidents of harassment or assault, the kinds of encounters that allegedly left at least one assistant to Weinstein in tears.
Some will speak up about what happened to them. We can hope the country is becoming a safer place for women to do that; we can work to make it safer. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that last year, the nation heard a man bragging on tape about assaulting women, and this year he is our president.
“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said in 2005. He seemed to be talking about the women he said he liked to kiss without warning. But his words also apply to American voters, who heard exactly what this powerful man thought of women — who heard women say these were not just thoughts, but actions — and who decided to let it go.