First it was Hollywood. Now the U.S. political scene has been hit by the sexual harassment debate. And Trump, until now very reserved, is beginning to get involved – despite the allegations against him.
This week, Democratic Sen. Al Franken apologized for forcibly kissing and groping a female TV presenter in 2006; two female politicians revealed that they had experienced sexual harassment from at least two of their male colleagues, who remain unnamed; the chief of staff for a female representative resigned on Thursday, amid sexual harassment allegations; and yet more women have publicly accused Republican nominee, Roy Moore, of acts of sexual aggression that took place decades ago.
Congress has experienced its fair share of sexual scandals over the years, including those linked to harassment or aggression.
One of the most well-known incidents was with Dennis Hastert, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who last year admitted to sexually harassing high school students whilst working as a wrestling coach decades ago. Or Clarence Thomas, whose nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991 was almost rejected due to sexual harassment allegations.
And yet, the political sphere has never truly recognized sexual harassment as a threat in need of a systematic response. The wave of revelations triggered on Oct. 5 by the Harvey Weinstein case has changed that.
This week, House Speaker Paul Ryan announced that all House members and staff must now complete anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training. The same applies to the Senate, where such procedures were previously optional.
Transparency is improving. The Congressional Office of Compliance released, for the first time, a breakdown of harassment settlements following individual complaints. In total, 264 payouts were issued between 1997 and 2017, equating to $17 million. These figures include all internal complaints, not just sexual harassment cases.
“People are nervous and are asking: ‘Who’ll be next?’” said top presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway, urging the Democratic Party to “re-examine their consciences.”*
Politics and sexual harassment form a highly unstable pairing. As such, it was inevitable that commentators and the media were quick to revive the scandal involving Monica Lewinsky, the young White House intern with whom Bill Clinton had sexual relations.
But it’s no longer just Fox News on the case. On Thursday, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told the New York Times that Bill Clinton should have resigned. Progressive journalists such as Matthew Yglesias (Vox.com) and Chris Hayes (MSNBC) have urged the Democrats to make amends, particularly with Juanita Broaddrick, who first accused Bill Clinton of rape decades ago.
Naturally, this brings us to the current president, accused of forcibly kissing and groping dozens of women.
Donald Trump stands accused of hypocrisy. On the one hand, him and his allies have always accused female witnesses of false allegations. Yet the multimillionaire, choosing to remain silent on Roy Moore, took to Twitter on Thursday night to berate Democratic Sen. Al Franken.
“And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women,” he wrote aggressively.
Why believe some women and not others? Why refuse all inquiries into his own case, but not into Sen. Franken?
“The American people, I think, spoke very loud and clear when they elected this president,” responded White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Friday, adding: “Franken has admitted wrongdoing, and the president hasn’t. I think that’s a very clear distinction.”
But the multimillionaire remains in dangerous territory.
Natasha Stoynoff, who accused Trump of forcibly kissing her in 2005, revisited the subject in an article in People magazine on Thursday. For the past year, she wrote, the problem has “been simmering on the stove with the lid on, like a pressure cooker. But now the heat’s on and it’s going to boil and the lid is going to blast off.”
The debate also provoked a reverse reaction from Ohio judge, Bill O’Neill. Confusing sexual aggression with consent, the judge shared on Facebook that he had slept with “50 very attractive females” in 50 years, and urged politicians to concentrate on what he considered more legitimate subjects, such as hospitals or cannabis.
*Editor’s note: This quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.