Two powerful men in America are on trial this week.
One has been accused of sexual harassment or assault by at least 100 women. He has since been charged with sexual assault and rape. Five women have taken the stand in recent days to testify that he had a pattern of manipulation, abuse, and assault. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
The other man has been accused of sexually harassing, assaulting, or otherwise violating more than 20 women. However, he has faced no criminal consequences in connection with any of these allegations. His current trial, in the US Senate, concerns the allegation that he pressured a foreign government to investigate his political rival. Thanks to a vote by Republicans unwilling to challenge him, no witnesses will be called. He is all but certain to be acquitted and will run for reelection in November.
The first man is producer Harvey Weinstein. The second, of course, is President Donald Trump.
Since the allegations against Weinstein became public in 2017, a year almost to the day after Trump was heard on tape bragging about his ability to grab women “by the pussy,” many have noted the similarities: two powerful men, both repeatedly accused of using their power and fame and wealth to prey on women sexually. One big difference, though, as some of Trump’s accusers have pointed out, is that while Weinstein has been ousted from his company and denounced by former friends, Trump is president of the United States, and enjoys the continued backing of his party and political allies.
That has remained true throughout his impeachment inquiry and trial. Although Sen. Kamala Harris has brought up Trump’s statements about women on the Access Hollywood tape, the allegations of sexual misconduct have mostly fallen by the wayside amid attention to his dealings with Ukraine. The difference in how America has responded to the two men says a lot, not just about the mores of Washington and Hollywood but about partisanship, power, and accountability.
The allegations against Weinstein and Trump are strikingly similar
The stories of Trump and Weinstein have a lot in common. Both men have been accused of touching women against their will, of making unsolicited and sexualized comments about women’s bodies, of using their power to coerce women into sex and to protect themselves in the aftermath.
Both men have been caught on tape. In a recording published by the New Yorker, Weinstein appears to admit to groping model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez and pressures her to come to his room. In the Access Hollywood tape released in October 2016, Trump bragged that his celebrity status allowed him to touch women: “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” he said. “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” After the tape was released, several women came forward to say that Trump had done the things he described, kissing and touching them without their consent.
Trump also boasted to Howard Stern about going backstage at the beauty pageants he owned and seeing the contestants naked. “I’m allowed to go in, because I’m the owner of the pageant and therefore I’m inspecting it,” he said. “And you see these incredible looking women, and so I sort of get away with things like that.”
A number of former pageant contestants have said that Trump did, in fact, walk in on them while they were changing. “Our first introduction to him was when we were at the dress rehearsal and half-naked changing into our bikinis,” Tasha Dixon, who competed in the Miss USA pageant in 2001, told CBS Los Angeles. “He just came strolling right in. There was no second to put a robe on or any sort of clothing or anything. Some girls were topless. Other girls were naked.”
Weinstein allegedly bragged to women about actresses with whom he’d had sex. Trump made similar claims, according to Barbara Res, who worked with Trump for about 18 years. “He used to talk about famous women calling him and wanting him, even when he was married,” she said. No one believed him, she added, “but he had that tendency to equate his greatness with his conquering of women.”
Both men also used deep relationships with the gossip press and a powerful armada of lawyers and legal threats to try to bully both alleged victims and reporters into silence. Weinstein’s litigiousness was legendary, and he allegedly silenced victims through settlements with ironclad nondisclosure agreements and intimidated journalists with threats of lawsuits.
Trump, too, has used his legal resources as a shield. When the Daily Beast reported that Ivana Trump, Donald Trump’s first wife, accused him of rape in a deposition, Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen responded ferociously. “I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse,” he told the reporter. “And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know. So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?”
Similarly, as the allegations against Trump mounted during the campaign, Trump issued an ominous threat. “Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign,” he said at an October 2016 campaign rally. “Total fabrication. The events never happened. Never. All of these liars will be sued after the election is over.”
Weinstein has faced consequences for the allegations against him. Will Trump?
Where the Trump and Weinstein stories greatly diverge, however, is in the response to the allegations. In the days after multiple women publicly accused Weinstein of harassment and assault in the New York Times and the New Yorker, Weinstein was fired from the Weinstein Company and kicked out of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His brother Bob (who has been accused of sexual harassment as well) called him a predator and said, “I want him to get the justice that he deserves.”
Weinstein was arrested in 2018 and indicted on sex-crimes charges. At his trial, which began in January, prosecutors aim to make the case that he raped one woman in 2013 and performed a forcible sex act on another in 2006. They have called multiple witnesses in an effort to establish a pattern of sexually abusive behavior, and during the trial, many new and disturbing details about the allegations against him have come to light.
One woman, for example, said that he trapped her in a hotel room, holding the door closed every time she tried to flee, ABC News reports. When she finally gave up, she testified, he took her hands, forcibly removed her clothes, and raped her.
It’s by no means certain that Weinstein will be convicted, and his defense attorneys have used a familiar strategy — asking the women testifying against him why they didn’t fight back more or report the crimes right away. One woman, Jessica Mann, appeared to have a panic attack on Monday while being cross-examined by Weinstein’s lawyer, BuzzFeed News reports.
Still, Weinstein’s firing and his trial are far more severe and formal in consequences than Trump has faced in connection with any of the sexual misconduct allegations against him.
In the wake of the Access Hollywood tape’s release, a few Republican members of Congress pulled their endorsements of Trump. But the party leadership remained behind him, even when women came forward with specific allegations. The reason was simple: They needed him.
“Nobody was willing to take him to task because that would’ve meant electing Hillary Clinton,” said Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. Weinstein could be deposed and replaced without seriously threatening the power of those around him, but losing the election to a Democrat would have had serious consequences for Republicans. “When you behave badly in the political arena, it’s possible to suffer fewer consequences because of partisanship,” Lawless said.
While an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted just after the Access Hollywood tape’s release found Clinton with an 11-point lead over Trump, a Washington Post/ABC News poll conducted around the same time gave her just a 4-point lead. In that poll, almost 70 percent of respondents said Trump had probably made unwanted sexual advances on women. But 64 percent of respondents — and 84 percent of Republicans — said the tape would make no difference in how they voted.
“It’s not only the Republicans in Congress” who were willing to give Trump a pass, said Lawless. “It’s also the country. People think this behavior is unacceptable, but when push comes to shove, there are circumstances under which they’ll tolerate it because there are other things that matter more to them.”
Those things surely varied, to some degree, from voter to voter. Trump won 53 percent of white women and 61 percent of white women without college degrees. The latter group, as Tara Golshan reported for Vox, has been growing more conservative in recent years and tends to have more conservative views on gender issues. In a Washington Post/ABC poll conducted in October 2016, about 4 in 10 women (and 4 in 10 men) said Trump’s comments on the Access Hollywood tape were typical “locker room talk” — his excuse at the time.
Then there is the strange role elections play as validators of moral behavior in American politics. If then-FBI Director James Comey had never sent his infamous letter, and Hillary Clinton had held another 2 or 3 percentage points in the popular vote and decisively won the Electoral College, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that Trump would’ve been widely rejected in the aftermath as an abuser whose actions cost the Republican Party the election. But because he won — and with his win gained power over everything from the tax code to Supreme Court nominations to the nuclear armada — the incentive for the political system, especially Republicans, was to move on.
Media outlets, too, began to move on from the sexual misconduct allegations to focus on newer scandals, like the allegation that Trump colluded with Russia to influence the election — or, later, that he withheld aid from Ukraine to get the country to investigate the Bidens. Perhaps because the allegations of harassment and assault did not cost Trump the election, media attention drifted elsewhere — to scandals that seemed, at the time, to have the potential to end his presidency.
Women have sued Trump — and he keeps casting himself as the victim
As the allegations against Weinstein continued to multiply, some wondered whether the outpouring would refocus attention on Trump’s past with women. “Please, may this empower people to step forward about Trump,” the hostess at a gathering of former Weinstein employees said to Dana Goodyear of the New Yorker. “Trump women can come through and throw him down. That would be the biggest play women can make. That’s what we need to do.”
In the years since Trump’s election, more women have indeed come forward — two have even brought lawsuits.
Summer Zervos, who says Trump sexually assaulted her in 2007, is suing him for defamation, arguing that his statements about her and other women had damaged her reputation. So far, Zervos has won some important victories — including the release of cell phone records showing that Trump called her on the day she says the assault occurred.
And last year, author and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll came forward to say that Trump had sexually assaulted her in 1995 or 1996 in a Manhattan department store dressing room. Trump gave a now-familiar response: He said that Carroll was lying, that he had never met her (despite a photo of the two together), and that she was “not my type” anyway. After that, Carroll, too, sued him for defamation.
Her suit, like Zervos’, is ongoing, and her lawyers are seeking a sample of Trump’s DNA to compare with samples of skin cells on a dress that Carroll says she was wearing when he assaulted her.
Neither of those lawsuits, however, has been treated as top news in a presidency that seems to race from scandal to scandal — most recently, Trump’s impeachment inquiry and trial over his dealings with Ukraine. Last week, Republican senators voted not to hear witnesses in that trial, and the Senate is all but certain to acquit Trump later this week. Throughout his impeachment inquiry and trial, Trump has continued to campaign for his 2020 reelection, telling a crowd of abortion opponents at January’s March for Life that Democrats “are coming after me because I am fighting for you.”
Throughout it all, Trump has been able to cast himself as the victim — of lying women and Democrats out to destroy him — and with at least some portion of the American public, he’s succeeding. Weinstein has tried to do the same, arguing that his achievements have been forgotten — and some have defended him as he attempts to reintegrate himself into public life. Ultimately, though, it seems as though too many influential people in America depend on Trump’s power to let it lapse — and Weinstein is no longer in such a position. In fact, he may have fallen from it some time ago.
Will Weinstein’s fall change Trump’s future?
As Rebecca Traister has argued at the Cut, perhaps Weinstein could only be ousted when his power in Hollywood was already on the wane. The same could be said of Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes — allegations against them began to stick when they were old men, no longer at the peak of their careers. As the accusations against Bill O’Reilly piled up, he remained valuable to Fox News — in 2016, the network’s parent company signed a four-year contract paying him $25 million a year, despite a fresh $32 million sexual harassment settlement between O’Reilly and a legal analyst, according to the New York Times. But as Jeff Guo noted at Vox, O’Reilly’s ratings were dipping — and an advertiser boycott meant it may have made business sense for Fox to let him go.
Meanwhile, Trump remains president of the United States and, arguably, the most powerful person in the Republican Party. Republicans know that if they break with him, they risk angering the people who voted for him in 2016 — and are eager to do so again in 2020. He’s about to be acquitted in his impeachment trial, and it’s not clear that this trial has damaged his approval rating at all — in fact, one poll has him at an all-time high.
What’s more, the sheer number of accusations against him, concerning everything from sexual misconduct to obstruction of justice to a quid pro quo with Ukraine, may actually work in his favor. Allegations of sexual harassment and assault are “just part of this much, much broader set of reasons that people think he’s not equipped to be president,” Lawless said. That allows his administration to dismiss the harassment and assault accusations as “just one more thing that Democrats are throwing at the wall” — and that argument works on voters “who feel like no matter what this guy does, there’s a new investigation.”
“We’ve gotten to a point now where there are so many concerns about so many facets of his presidency that it’s hard for any of them to be damning,” Lawless said.
That doesn’t mean the Weinstein allegations — or the Me Too movement, which gained steam as those allegations became public — have had no impact. Many believe that Me Too, the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court despite sexual assault allegations against him, and the election of Trump have all combined to galvanize female voters — and to make some men reflect on misogyny in American politics. Those forces may have been a factor in 2018, when a record number of women were elected to Congress, and they could be a factor in 2020 as well.
The women who have spoken out about Trump, Weinstein, and other powerful men as the Me Too movement entered its current, most public phase have, in many cases, faced intense scrutiny and backlash. Most have received little or no restitution for the trauma they say they suffered, the careers derailed, the opportunities lost. In most cases, no election can change that now. But in one recent poll, 49 percent of voters and 79 percent of Democrats said that the Kavanaugh hearings made them want to see more women in office — for those voters, at least, that may be the best hope for change.
But for now, Trump may wield too much authority to pay for the allegations against him — too many other interests and politicians and factions would find themselves damaged if he were to fall.
This is, perhaps, the depressing lesson of the Weinstein and Trump stories. The allegations are similar. The evidence is similar. But power still protects, and while Weinstein had lost enough power to imperil his protection, Trump has only amassed more.
“Trump has a lifetime of doing things that would be found to be unacceptable and reprehensible in other people and would have led to their downfall,” said Tony Schwartz, Trump’s ghostwriter on The Art of the Deal, “and he has consistently, since a very early age, been able to survive his own behavior.”
Update: An earlier version of this story was published in October 2017. It has been updated with news of the Trump and Weinstein trials.