When several women came forward Wednesday night with allegations that Donald Trump had groped or kissed them without their consent, they were greeted in some quarters with suspicion. Many of these incidents had happened years earlier — why hadn’t they come forward at the time? If they hadn’t reported the assaults when they happened, didn’t that make it more plausible that there had never been any assault?
Trump’s accusers never really got a chance to answer that question. Trump himself answered it for them.
In his speech Thursday responding to the accusations, Trump did everything that survivors of sexual assault say they’re afraid of if they make their accusations public.
He claimed the allegations were orchestrated by the Clinton campaign — discrediting the accusers themselves by portraying them as mere pawns.
He implied that journalist Natasha Stoynoff, who alleged Wednesday night that Trump had forcibly grabbed and kissed her when she was reporting a piece about his marriage to Melania for People magazine, was essentially too ugly to assault: “Look at her. Look at her words. I don’t think so.”
He discredited another accuser, Jill Harth, by saying that she’d repeatedly sought jobs with Trump companies — implying that any continued contact with Trump clearly meant that whatever he’d done to her hadn’t been that bad. This was, he said, “an individual who has been totally discredited based on the many, many e-mails and letters she has sent to our office over the years looking for work.”
He essentially sicced his impassioned followers — people who, throughout Trump’s campaign, have targeted and harassed Trump critics — on the accusers: “Take a look at these people. You study these people and you’ll understand also.”
He didn’t name any of the accusers, but they’re only a Google search away. (Fox Business host Lou Dobbs already tweeted the alleged personal information of some of Trump’s accusers.)
And he criticized, at length, the publications in which the accusers had revealed their names and stories — especially People magazine and the New York Times. He didn’t explicitly promise to sue the Times in his speech, but he didn’t really need to — his campaign has already confirmed that it plans to sue the Times, and it’s already sent the paper a letter (which the Times has rejected) ordering it to take down the offending articles.
“The New York Times is fighting desperately for its relevance and financial survival. And it probably won't even be around in a few years based on its financial outlook. Which wouldn't be a bad thing, if you want to know the truth,” he mock-confessed to his audience.
Under other circumstances, it would be typical Trumpian anti-media bluster. Under these circumstances, it was hard to understand it as anything other than a threat: Come forward with more allegations and you too will be in the fight of your life.
“Free speech” is really a question of who gets to speak out without consequences
Trump had one more line of attack. He asked why these women hadn’t come forward with their accusations earlier — why Stoynoff, for example, hadn’t reported her assault in the article she wrote for People a decade ago.
Never let it be said that Donald Trump doesn’t have chutzpah.
Maybe — just maybe — she hadn’t come forward because she wasn’t looking forward to having her name dragged through the mud, her past scrutinized, and her looks insulted by one of the most famous men on Earth. Maybe she wasn’t enthusiastic about the angry mob responses she’d get if she openly talked about the dark side of a powerful man. Maybe she didn’t want to be the subject of a frivolous but nonetheless potentially ruinous lawsuit.
The fact of the matter is that even though Donald Trump runs as the candidate who will tell the public the truth — who’s left the club of “insiders” to tell America what really goes on behind closed doors — he’s spent his life protected by the norms that keep other people quiet.
He’s a beneficiary of a culture that didn’t treat him as a monster in the early 1990s, when Ivana Trump alleged he raped her. He benefited from a code that allowed people on set at The Apprentice, Access Hollywood, and who knows how many other shows to allow him to say disgusting things without either calling him out or leaking them to the public. He’s currently the Republican nominee for president in part because most of the women who’ve spoken out against Trump since last week didn’t speak out a year ago, when one of Trump’s Republican rivals could have used the opposition research.
When informal social norms haven’t been enough to protect Trump, he’s relied on blunter tools: lawsuits, alimony, nondisclosure agreements. Or he’s simply flatly denied anything accused of him — knowing that he’s a famous and powerful enough human being that his word ultimately will be taken more seriously.
Trump knows exactly why women have been afraid to come forward before now. If he doesn’t, it’s because he doesn’t put enough faith in his own ability to instill fear. But Donald Trump isn’t usually a man who underestimates his own power over others.
He knows he can ruin people’s lives. He is choosing to do so today.