Read: The real meaning of Trump’s ‘she’s not my type’ defense
It is easy, in the impeachment hearings’ tumult—the testimonies, the twists, the history made in real time—to ignore those accusations. They are not, after all, a direct element of the inquiry. They are not among the alleged crimes that the House of Representatives has determined to be impeachable. A constellation of reasons, constitutional and political and cultural, explains why the impeachment inquiry is unfolding as it is—at this moment, rooted in this one particular incident of alleged abuse of power. It is nonetheless a sobering thing, to watch the hearings for the one alleged crime play out while the other alleged crimes are, effectively, ignored.
One function of presidential impeachment hearings, my colleague Yoni Appelbaum wrote in a rich and prescient essay earlier this year, is their ability to convene public attention. Americans are constitutionally distractible; the Constitution, it turns out, offers a way to mitigate that. Impeachment, on top of everything else, is a way of cutting through the noise of rumors and conspiracy theories, putting the truths of a president’s actions to the test and determining what, in presidential leadership, ultimately matters. There is a flip side to that power, though. When the question at hand is whether Trump engaged in an abuse of power with Ukraine, his alleged abuse of power with women becomes less relevant. All the other facts of unfitness—the families seeking refuge, torn apart at the American border; Trump’s insistence that the tragedies of Charlottesville, Virginia, featured “very fine people on both sides”; the bigotry; the cruelty; the offenses both casual and sweeping—get consigned to the background.
That is by design. Impeachment is a process of specificity. But the effect it has on the assault allegations in particular is to tidily replicate what has taken place in the American political environment more broadly: The allegations have hovered over Donald Trump without meaningfully affecting the political fortunes of Donald Trump. The sitting president has been insulated by a party that often seems to care more about tribal loyalty than anything else. He has been protected by a culture that insists, still, that boys will be boys and that, as a corollary, Trump will be Trump, and that it is useless to question the inevitable.
Read: The cruel paradox at the heart of E. Jean Carroll’s allegation against Trump
This summer, Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor in chief, interviewed Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and a onetime Trump adviser. Goldberg asked Christie about the writer E. Jean Carroll’s allegation of rape, as one more instance of a woman making an accusation of sexual misconduct against Trump; he asked whether, as a politician, Christie would call for an investigation of the claims. “No,” Christie replied. “Because as a practical matter, the statute of limitations on all of them is gone.” Isn’t the allegation also, Goldberg followed up, a moral matter? Yes, Christie allowed; that doesn’t mean, he continued, that the matter can be satisfactorily adjudicated. “What’s this comprehensive investigation?” Christie asked. “Who’s doing it?” Later, he added something else: When it came to Carroll’s allegation, he said, “I don’t believe we’re ever going to know the truth.”