Why Isn't a Rape Allegation Worth an Impeachment Inquiry?

On the selective accountabilities of the Trump hearings

Erin Scott / Reuters

To watch the public impeachment hearings of Donald Trump is to experience a very particular form of whiplash. The House inquiry has featured a series of collisions, between Democrats and Republicans, yes, but also between accountability and its opposite. Here is a proceeding led in part by lawmakers who have, when it comes to the president, repeatedly prioritized fealty over facts. And here is the key question at hand—did Donald Trump extort a U.S. ally for his own political gain?—chafing against the other questionable matters not being addressed in the hearing: the reported frauds, the well-documented lies, the atmospheric fact of Trump’s bigotries. The precision guiding the House inquiry—bribery, high crimes and misdemeanors—is constitutionally mandated; it is a proportional response. Watching it play out, however, is a little like watching Hannibal Lecter getting tried for tax evasion.

Here is another matter left largely unaccounted for in the proceedings: Donald Trump, currently accused of bribery, has also been accused of rape. He has been accused of other forms of sexual misconduct as well, by more than 20 women, their allegations ranging from kissing to groping and grabbing, all against their will. If you include allegations of nonphysical forms of sexual harassment, the number of accusers grows even larger. The president has, in reply to these claims, issued a blanket denial: The people making accusations against him, he has said, are lying. (That list includes, ostensibly, Donald Trump himself, who has made his own claims about assaulting women: “It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait … Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”)

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.

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.”

Christie is a former prosecutor. His point was that the law is narrow, by design—that it is better, in matters of justice, to live in uncertainty than to live in error. But his reply to Goldberg was making another point as well: The government, thus far, has not meaningfully investigated the assault allegations against Trump. It has seen no need to. Instead, a sense of apathy has set in. The allegations against the president have been metabolized as a collection of known unknowns, lingering in the American ether. Carroll recently filed a civil suit against Trump—she is suing him for defamation, claiming that he lied about her when he denied her assertion—and her claim was making another kind of point: She said he raped her. The best chance she had to get her allegation addressed was to say he had wounded her reputation.

It is a familiar compromise. American public life is teeming with stories of women who were heard but not listened to. Justice can be so hard to find that even the illusion of it can seem like progress. When Christine Blasey Ford made her allegation against Brett Kavanaugh, she was met, in part, with a show trial. The FBI promised an investigation into her claims and others’ that barely materialized—nullified, apparently, by the rushed Senate vote that installed Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court by a margin of two. But: The Senate Judiciary Committee also conducted hearings, and aired them to the public. It gave Ford that barest measure of respect. For all their perversities, the hearings’ existence alone sent a message: The world was no longer a place in which a claim like Ford’s could be tolerably ignored.

Except, the latest hearings suggest: It is. Still. In spite of it all. The institutional silence that has greeted the assault allegations against Trump has its own cold eloquence. The inquiry, in what it reveals, takes the measure of Donald Trump; in what it ignores, it also takes the measure of the rest of us.

Yesterday, Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union, gave his much-anticipated testimony to the House Intelligence Committee. “Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said in his opening statement, regarding Trump’s alleged attempt at state-sanctioned extortion. The claim was widely characterized as a “bombshell” and a “blockbuster”—a moment of plot-twisting, potentially game-changing drama. “Everybody knew.” That fact alone was damning.

Donald Trump has been credibly accused of rape. Many, many women have come forward to say that he harassed and assaulted them. Those allegations are another thing that everybody knows. And yet.