Joni Ernst is the fourth-highest-ranking Republican in the Senate and one of the most powerful women in the country. She's also an ally of President Donald Trump, but drew a sharp distinction between her personal experience and her political decisions.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, says that she was raped in college by someone she knew and that her ex-husband physically abused her, making her one of the highest-profile women in her party to allege assaults in the era of the #MeToo movement.
Ernst publicly disclosed the rape in an interview with Bloomberg News, which she decided to do after details of her divorce from husband Gail Ernst were reported this week.
“I didn’t want to share it with anybody, and in the era of hashtag-MeToo survivors, I always believed that every person is different and they will confront their demons when they’re ready,” Ernst said in the interview.
Her voice broke. “And I was not ready.”
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Ernst, who faces re-election in 2020, is the fourth-highest ranking Republican in the Senate and one of the most powerful women in the country. She’s an ally of President Donald Trump, who has been accused of sexual misconduct or assault by multiple women, but she drew a sharp distinction between her personal experience and her political decisions.
“It’s outrageous to suggest that anyone who has been the victim of sexual assault should therefore be a Hillary Clinton supporter,” Ernst said.
Ernst may face fresh criticism for her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, whom Christine Blasey Ford accused of sexual assault at a riveting Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last year. Ernst, who has partnered with New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand to combat sexual assault in the military and pressure the FBI to collect more data on stalking and domestic violence, publicly defended Kavanaugh after Ford’s testimony.
“I do believe she experienced trauma, but the evidence and witnesses presented by her contradicted her story,” Ernst told Bloomberg. “I don’t believe Justice Kavanaugh was the source of her trauma.”
The senator’s allegation that her husband abused her became public after details from affidavits Joni and Gail Ernst filed in their divorce were first published Monday by Cityview in Des Moines, Iowa. The affidavits were supposed to be sealed but were inadvertently made public in a court filing after the divorce was finalized earlier this month.
“Out of respect for his family, Gail is declining to make any statements at this point,” Ivan Miller, an attorney for Gail Ernst, said Thursday.
A flurry of tabloid-style coverage of Ernst’s divorce followed the release of the affidavits. She publicly addressed her accusation against her husband at a town hall meeting in Cedar Falls, Iowa on Wednesday.
“I am a survivor,” she said, according to the Muscatine Journal. “What I want people to understand is that I am the same person as I was last week. You just know more about what’s inside of me now.”
Ernst, 48, may be one of the most vulnerable Republican senators in 2020. She represents a purple state; Democrats won two congressional seats held by Republicans in 2018, though the incumbent Republican governor also won re-election. The revelations stemming from her divorce haven’t changed her career path, Ernst said.
“I’m seeking re-election. I’m going to do it as a single woman,” she said. “People know my situation now. What I can do is be honest about what happened. And I can move forward. The problem is now I’ve been outed when I was not ready to talk about it. But now maybe it forces me to talk about it.”
There was political news in the disclosure as well; in her affidavit, Ernst said that Trump interviewed her to be his running mate during a visit to his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club over the Fourth of July weekend in 2016.
“I turned Candidate Trump down, knowing it wasn’t the right thing for me or my family,” she wrote.
Ernst said in the Bloomberg interview on Tuesday that Trump never offered her the job. “I told him I needed to think about it,” she said. She later telephoned then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort to withdraw from consideration, she said.
Trump campaign aides said Ernst would have been on the short list for vice president had she not withdrawn.
In her affidavit the senator also accused her husband of plotting with “a long-time girlfriend” to divorce his wife. Gail Ernst, 65, in turn accused Ernst of infidelity with a soldier under her command. Both of the Ernsts are Army veterans.
Ernst said she became close to the soldier after he assisted her when she suffered a grave illness while deployed, but that the relationship wasn’t sexual.
“There was no affair,” she said. “The entire affidavit made me sick. It was just one lie after another.”
The couple were married in 1992 and have one daughter together. The senator issued a brief statement in August announcing they were seeking a divorce. Gail Ernst retired from a job as a regional airport manager.
In his affidavit, Gail Ernst didn’t respond to his wife’s allegation that he physically abused her. He denied having any affairs. “I’ve never even danced with any other woman before I filed for divorce,” he wrote.
Joni Ernst discussed her marriage and divorce with Bloomberg in August and at greater length in a phone call Tuesday night, when she also first disclosed her rape as a college student. At times as she described her past, Ernst cried so hard that she was barely intelligible.
For most of high school, Ernst says, she didn’t date. “I was the smart one, who earned the 4.0, the sweet girl that takes care of everybody,” she said.
She entered into a relationship with someone who was “very abusive. He was physically and sexually abusive,” she said. One night while she was in college at Iowa State University, he raped her at his home, then later threatened to kill himself if she broke up with him, she said. She called the campus sexual assault counseling center’s hotline, and ended the relationship. She didn’t report the attack to police, she said.
Later in life, she volunteered at the counseling center without disclosing that she had once been a client. Her volunteer work was part of her official biography during her 2014 Senate campaign, but when asked about it she said only that she cared for survivors of sexual assault — not that she was one herself.
“I was embarrassed,” she said. “I didn’t know how to explain it. I was so humiliated. And I’m a private person, when it comes to those things.”
Ernst said she told Gail about the rape but that she refused to tell him her attacker’s name. She declined to identify the man during the Bloomberg interview.
A man who was friends with Ernst in college said that she told him she had been raped shortly after she said it happened.
Gail Ernst has previously caused his wife political difficulty. He wrote a post on Facebook in 2013: “What do you do if you see your ex running around in your front yard screaming and bloody? Stay calm. Reload. And try again.” Asked about the remarks during her Senate campaign, Joni Ernst told the Des Moines Register that she was “appalled” and had “addressed this issue with my husband and that’s between us.”
Ernst said in the Bloomberg interview that her husband physically attacked her once during their marriage. In 2007 or 2008, when Ernst was a county-level elected official, they argued about a woman “and Gail said he wouldn’t give her up.” She followed him from the bedroom down the staircase, yelling at him.
“He turned around at the landing, and he grabbed me by the throat with his hands and threw me on the landing floor,” she said. “And then he pounded my head … on the landing. It was very sudden and very violent. It scared me.”
She said in her affidavit that she fled the house with the couple’s daughter and went to her mother’s house. The next day, she said in the interview, she dropped her daughter off at school and then reported the assault to a victim’s advocate. The advocate advised her to go to the hospital, Ernst said in the interview, but she didn’t seek medical care or report the attack to police.
Ernst said she didn’t want to embarrass her husband and hoped to make their marriage work. Gail Ernst agreed to counseling, she said, but asked her not to mention the attack before they attended their first session. They never addressed the abuse, she said.
“He said that it would never happen again and blah-blah-blah. And it didn’t,” Ernst said. “But there was always that underlying threat.”