Think of a political campaign as a trial, with the election as the verdict. The reason President Donald Trump is seemingly immune from the sexual-harassment cultural shift is because, like it or not, voters already found him not guilty. Or at least not guilty enough.
In the now daily roll call of sexual-harassment reckonings for men in Hollywood, media, academia and politics, one is conspicuously missing.
It’s the No. 1 question I’ve been hearing of late from Seattle readers. It’s great, they say, that we’re finally having it out about some men’s mistreatment of women. But what about the man at the very top?
“The MeToo movement is generations overdue, and I know the important thing is that it leads to lasting change,” one Seattle woman wrote to me. “So I shouldn’t get partisan with it. But … why the hell is Trump the only one who is immune?”
Great question! More than a dozen women came forward last year alleging Donald Trump had in some way physically violated them, and one of the women retains an active civil suit against him (all the other claims were beyond the statute of limitations).
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Yet the president obviously feels no political or legal peril whatever, despite the culture-shifting mood. He has had no reticence mocking the Harvey Weinsteins and Al Frankens of the world as they deservedly crater due to their own sex-harassment scandals.
When asked about this double standard — about why there should be an investigation of Franken, but not Trump — White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the key was deniability.
“Sen. Franken has admitted wrongdoing, and the president hasn’t,” she said. “I think that’s a very clear distinction.”
As confounding as that answer is, in the strange calculus of politics, it’s also true.
The cardinal political rule of “never admit anything” does often work. As a reporter in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s, I had a front-row seat for the sex scandal and ultimate impeachment of Bill Clinton. Critical to his political survival at the time was his pathological willingness to deny it all — to finger-waggingly lie to the public. This benefitted him even though nobody believed him. His lies did get him in legal jeopardy when he said them in a deposition. But the political reality is they also gave Democrats breathing space to not join calls for his resignation.
Isn’t politics grand? The same twisted phenomenon is likely happening now. Trump says he didn’t do it, so Republicans can shrug it off. Same with Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. He says it’s all fake news, so the GOP’s sticking with him.
It’s unfortunate that lying and denial works better in politics than confession and sincere apology. But this is the world we live in.
Still, denying everything doesn’t always work; see former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. He never acknowledged doing anything wrong in his sex-abuse scandal, yet finally felt compelled by the sheer weight of five accusers to resign in September.
So what is the lasting difference between, say, Trump and Murray, or Trump and Franken? Is it just that Trump’s indestructible — that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and get away with it?
No. Uncomfortably, the real difference is us. The reason Trump can get away with hypocritically gloating about other people’s sex scandals is that we already let him off the hook for his own.
The stories of the dozen women who say Trump harassed them were all fully reported and broadcast before last November’s election. So was the infamous tape in which he boasted about how he liked to grab and grope. Eyes wide open, we the people hired him anyway.
This is why he’s immune. It’s why Bill Clinton survived, too. If campaigns are like trials, the election is the verdict. The voters for all practical purposes ruled “not guilty” on Trump’s sexual harassment last November. Or at least, “not guilty enough.” It’s an echo of how multiple stories of affairs and harassment, including the one from Paula Jones, were already known to voters in 1996 when we re-elected Bill Clinton.
So unless new allegations surface, or until another campaign (trial) begins, the sorry reality is Trump can tweet away in the White House without much of a care about women, his own hypocrisy or the cultural movement now sweeping through society.
There’s a cliché in politics, popular with whoever has most recently triumphed, that “elections matter.” Boy, do they ever.