A couple of weeks ago, as the Harvey Weinstein story continued to spool out across the news, I surveyed the growing pile of allegations—the horrific and familiar tale of an angry, wealthy, egotistical man with a casual habit of treating young women as if they were blow-up dolls. Remarkably, the right things were happening. Weinstein was being disgraced and disowned, and his accusers applauded for their bravery. Like many women, I felt simultaneously galvanized, vindicated, dispirited, and exhausted. A year before—to the day, I realized—I’d been assembling similar stories about Donald Trump.
The public narrative of Trump’s sexually predatory behavior begins in 1993, with Harry Hurt’s book “The Lost Tycoon,” which included details from a 1990 divorce deposition in which Ivana Trump described her husband violently raping her in Trump Tower, in a fit of anger over a botched scalp surgery. In a statement provided to Hurt, Ivana walked back her claim without denying it; she didn’t mean that Trump raped her in a “literal or criminal” sense, she said. The story reappeared in May, 2016, when the Times published accounts from two women describing nonconsensual encounters with Trump, and then it flared fully back to life in October of that year, with the “Access Hollywood” tape, a recording of a 2005 conversation in which Trump bragged about habitually committing sexual assault. By the end of October, twenty women had gone on the record to describe Trump’s sexual misconduct. Twelve of them recounted being physically violated, corroborating Trump’s own description of his behavior—he grabbed women by the pussy, he said to Billy Bush, because he could.
I reread the piece I wrote last year about all of this, and it felt a little humiliating. It was clear that I had been so upset, and so full of trust in the weight of moral narrative, that I felt sure Trump would not be able to win the Presidency. And, over the past year, I realized, I had also allowed myself to forget the sheer repulsiveness of some of Trump’s offhand comments about women: that he told his friends to “be rougher” with their wives, that he seemed to regularly joke about dating teen-agers. I recently shared the piece on Twitter and received more than two hundred replies, many of which asked the same sort of question: Why isn’t anyone doing anything about this? Why don’t these women press charges against the President? Why don’t they get together and sue him? Where are all these accusers now?
A few of Trump’s accusers have spoken to the media since the Weinstein story broke. Natasha Stoynoff, a writer for People who last year described Trump pushing her against a wall and forcibly kissing her, in 2005, at Mar-a-Lago, wrote an op-ed for USA Today describing an encounter during her college years with another man, an Oscar-nominated actor who grabbed her and said, “I’m going to —- you so hard, you’ll scream like a whore.” That experience, Stoynoff wrote, “was a factor in why I didn’t report the Trump incident when it happened.” After both incidents, she explained, she’d been afraid that the perpetrator would ruin her career if she spoke out. Jessica Leeds, who told the Times, last year, that Trump groped her on a plane in the eighties, did an interview with Slate a few weeks ago. “I’m truly sorry that I didn’t make more of an impact, that we all didn’t make more of an impact,” she said. “But as the man says himself, he could stand on Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and his supporters wouldn’t care.” Temple Taggart, a former Miss USA contestant who says that Trump kissed her inappropriately twice, told the paper, “With Trump, it was all brushed under a rug.”
As for the possibility of pressing charges against Trump, that window had already closed by last year’s election for everyone except his ex-wife. In New York, there is no statute of limitations in rape cases. But Ivana signed a gag order in the divorce, which prevents her from talking about her marriage without Trump’s permission. She also appears to have no interest in pressing charges. Her recent memoir, “Raising Trump,” does not mention the incident (or any overtly negative story about her ex-husband, for that matter). Some of Trump’s accusers describe acts that could have fallen under New York’s definition of “forcible touching,” a Class A misdemeanor; the statute of limitations for that crime is two years. Stoynoff’s Mar-a-Lago story could meet Florida’s definition of battery; that offense has a four-year statute of limitations in the state. In any case, it’s difficult, to put it mildly, to imagine a prosecutor who would be able and willing to bring these charges against the President. In 2015, Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan District Attorney who was just reëlected—he ran unopposed—chose not to bring charges against Weinstein, despite having audio of Weinstein admitting to sexual misconduct, as well as testimony from his alleged victim, the model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, who had reported the crime the day it occurred. The decision was rooted “in the difference between a case against an ordinary person accused of a sex crime and a person like Harvey Weinstein,” Jeannie Suk Gersen wrote recently. The distance between an ordinary person and a President—one who happens to be Donald Trump, a man vindictive enough to cut off medical benefits to his nephew’s seriously ill young son in the middle of a dispute about family inheritance—is wider still.
There is a single ongoing piece of litigation against the President, a civil defamation suit lodged by Summer Zervos, the former “Apprentice” contestant, who alleges that Trump “aggressively” kissed her, groped her, and thrust his genitals at her. Zervos is represented by Gloria Allred, the famous women’s-rights attorney, whom I profiled last month. (Allred’s California firm, Allred, Maroko & Goldberg, is working in partnership with the New York law firm Cuti Hecker Wang.) Allred, who has spent much of her forty-one-year career defending victims of sexual assault and harassment—she also represents thirty-three of Bill Cosby’s nearly sixty accusers—held a press conference with Zervos shortly before Trump’s Inauguration. “Enough is enough,” she said. “Truth matters. Women matter. Those who allege they were victims of sexual misconduct or sexual assault by Mr. Trump matter.” One of her court filings in Zervos’s lawsuit lists seventeen statements made by Trump during the campaign in an attempt to discredit his accusers’ stories: the women were telling “false allegations and outright lies,” he said; their stories were “100% fabricated and made-up”; Zervos “wishes she could still be on reality TV.”
Zervos is asking for three thousand dollars in damages, a sign that the lawsuit is not financially motivated; the goal is a systematic reëngagement with the truth about Trump’s sexual misdeeds. Her lawyers have filed a wide-ranging subpoena that seeks all records from the Trump camp concerning any accusations of sexual misbehavior made during the campaign, as well as anything related to statements made by Trump himself on the “Access Hollywood” tape. (Trump maintains that he was engaging in “locker-room talk,” and that every woman who has accused him of sexual misconduct is lying.) Trump has attempted to get the case dismissed through a variety of arguments—that it was a matter of “political opinion” when he said his accusers were liars, that a sitting President can’t be sued in state court. A judge is expected to rule on whether the subpoena’s discovery will be granted, and whether the case can proceed to the New York State Supreme Court in the relatively near future, possibly before the end of the year. Zervos, for her part, has refrained from speaking to the media since the Inauguration.
Why aren’t there more civil lawsuits? Why aren’t Trump’s accusers dominating the news cycle with harrowing op-eds? Here again, Weinstein’s case is illuminating. Ronan Farrow’s latest piece details the sickening array of options available to Weinstein in his yearlong project to coerce and discredit the actresses and journalists who hoped to articulate the story of his behavior: there were multiple private investigation firms and spies of all kinds in play. Weinstein’s case is different from Trump’s in crucial ways, of course: our President is not accused of orchestrating a complex undercover campaign to harass and threaten his sexual-assault accusers. (Although, after he called them liars at his campaign rallies, a vocal fraction of his political supporters have been happy to do that on their own.) Still, at a time when a Hollywood producer is hiring ex-Mossad agents to go after alleged rape victims—a time when, Weinstein stories notwithstanding, multiple press outlets have been hounded, threatened, and even exterminated by the wealthy and vengeful—it would take an astonishing amount of courage to continually reiterate a sexual-assault claim against the volatile and virtually invulnerable President of the United States.
It seems almost cruel to wish, at this point, that these women would keep speaking. They already did. They told the public that Trump grabbed them and groped them. They gave the details of where and when; they spoke about how it had affected them. A poll last October found that sixty-eight per cent of registered voters believed their stories. Only fourteen per cent believed that Trump had not made unwanted sexual advances toward women. So it’s not that we didn’t hear Trump’s accusers, or even that we didn’t believe them. We knew that they weren’t lying, and we elected him anyway. Our response when victims speak up now has to be shaped by the magnitude of that failure.