John Cuneo

On the afternoon of July 3, the day before President Donald Trump’s rained-on Independence Day celebration (or “show of a lifetime,” depending on whose Twitter feed you look at), a small but committed group left a wharf in Washington, D.C., for a cruise on the Potomac.

In 2016, we learned that the Trump coalition was broader than many had assumed: the hold-your-nose-vote-your-pocketbook one-percenters; the suburban soccer moms who, when it came down to it, were a little skittish about immigration. But the 200-some-odd passengers aboard the Spirit of Washington were emphatically not those people—this was a Trump-campaign-rally crowd in full flower. Women carried evening clutches with MAGA spelled in rhinestones; one guest was literally wrapped in the flag, the stars portion knotted at her neck, the rest wafting in the waterfront breeze like Superman’s cape. There were “Bikers for Trump,” “Cowboys for Trump,” a woman peddling 24-karat-gold-plated Trump-hologram novelty bills for $30 (proceeds, she explained, would go to defeating Representative Ilhan Omar).

And yet the woman of the hour, the person with whom just about everyone wanted to take a selfie, was a 76-year-old grandmother named Juanita with a heart-shaped face and a cascade of blond curls wrangled into a ponytail; on her navy sheath, she wore a trump 2020 pin no bigger than American Airlines wings. Before she even reached the check-in desk at the pier, she was approached for a picture by a statuesque woman in her early 30s wearing a sundress and a MAGA hat. “I know you from Fox News,” the woman said. Another woman told her, “I just love your Twitter—I have it open on my phone right now.” A man who said he was running for Congress against California’s Adam Schiff made sure they swapped contact info—it was clear he wanted her endorsement. Throughout the three-hour trip, she was polished and patient and gracious. At the same time, she seemed a little uncomfortable with all the fuss. When we were back on dry land, I asked how many people she thought had wanted to take a selfie with her, and she looked embarrassed. “Oh, no more than 30,” she said, undoubtedly undercounting her fans.

outside of Trump’s base, the name Juanita Broaddrick may stir only muddled memories—wasn’t she one of the women not named Monica Lewinsky who accused Bill Clinton of something? Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Gennifer Flowers—their stories can blur, but each of these women has a distinct set of allegations, and Broaddrick’s are the most serious. She says Clinton raped her in 1978, when he was the attorney general of Arkansas and she was a volunteer for his gubernatorial campaign. She did not report the alleged crime to the police; in fact, Broaddrick’s name wasn’t made public until two decades later, via a 1998 court filing in the Paula Jones case. (Clinton denied the allegations.) Even though Broaddrick did some press—once she’d been outed, she wanted the chance to share her perspective—the story didn’t stick to the Clinton legacy the way Lewinsky’s has. At the time, her claims were mostly ignored, and when acknowledged they were often disparaged; the fact that she’d recanted in an affidavit after being subpoenaed by Jones’s lawyers was a favorite data point of critics. (Broaddrick says she denied that anything had happened with Clinton because she didn’t want to get involved in a big legal circus with Jones.)

But the worst part of the aftermath had already happened by then, Broaddrick told me. Clinton had been the leader of the free world for five long years. “Just seeing him on TV, it was constant. I don’t know who got to be the quickest, my husband or me, switching the channel,” she said. She even ended up going to an earlier church service, because at her usual one the priest had taken to asking congregants to pray for the president. “I had to sit in church, down on my knees, and be told that I am to pray for Bill Clinton.”

By the early aughts, she’d faded into relative obscurity and basically moved on with her life. Then Hillary Clinton ran for president, and her pronounced pro-woman agenda stirred up decades-old resentment. “I kept thinking, Why can’t you see this huge elephant in the room?” Broaddrick recalled. “Why can’t you see this woman for what she really is?” One day, Broaddrick decided she had to weigh in. Though she’d tweeted only three times before the 2016 election cycle, she sent out a statement that went viral: “I was 35 years old when Bill Clinton, Ark. Attorney General raped me. I am now 73 … it never goes away.” Nine months later, the Trump campaign issued what would be a fateful invitation: Would she sit in the audience during the candidate’s second debate with Hillary Clinton?

Since that October evening, Broaddrick has popped up semi-regularly on Fox News and become something of a MAGA thought leader, with 133,000 followers on Twitter, where her commentary ranges from insults (like calling Representative Schiff “Schiff for Brains”) to borderline hate speech (retweeting a picture of the short-haired soccer star Megan Rapinoe and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez captioned “Boy Meets Girl”). She travels the country speaking to conservative groups and signing copies of her self-published memoir, You’d Better Put Some Ice on That (so named for the last thing Broaddrick says Clinton uttered before leaving the scene of the alleged assault, in which he bit her lip so violently that he drew blood).

Twitter augments the snarkier side of almost everyone’s personality, but the gulf between Broaddrick’s social-media persona and her actual one is especially wide. In the days after Broaddrick denigrated E. Jean Carroll, the woman who accused Trump of rape in her new book, tweeting that she looked like the Jeopardy host Alex Trebek, I called her to request an interview. To hear Broaddrick’s genial, alto drawl was jarring, as was the contrast between the vitriolic @atensnut (Broaddrick is a huge tennis fan) and the woman who later greeted me with a bear hug when we met in the lobby of a Days Inn near her home. I’d mentioned on the phone that I’d forgotten my toothbrush, and, though it was a Sunday morning, she’d come over to transport me to the nearest drugstore. She hadn’t been planning on church that day anyway, she assured me. Even the story of how she’d launched her Twitter activism—her grandson had helped; she’d barely known how the thing worked—was endearing.

Toothbrush secured, Broaddrick took me on a tour of the place where she’s spent almost her whole life, Fort Smith and neighboring Van Buren. Fort Smith has the second-largest population in the state, after Little Rock, though it’s by no means a metropolis. The downtown’s stately, wide boulevards and meticulously preserved antebellum architecture are its main selling points. The city is so quintessentially old South that it served as a location for The Blue and the Gray, a 1980s miniseries about the Civil War starring Stacy Keach.

Most interesting were Broaddrick’s personal landmarks. She pointed out the spot where her parents—both white southerners, despite what her first name might suggest—used to own a dry cleaner. The place where a tomboyish Juanita broke her arm at 8 years old while visiting a classmate’s horse farm (now a Walmart—welcome to Arkansas). The movie theater where 4-year-old Juanita and her 6-year-old sister, Patsy, would take the bus to watch spaghetti Westerns while their parents spent 12-hour days pressing suits—life was different back then, or her mother and father were really irresponsible; she’s undecided. The sprawling 40-acre property where she’d lived with her second husband, a cowboy who lassoed cattle in their backyard, and then by herself after the two divorced in 2003. (She downsized only last year, moving to a two-bedroom condo in a nearby gated community.) The law offices of her only child, Kevin, whom she adopted when he was two days old. The high school where she attends every home football game to watch Kevin’s boy, her 16-year-old grandson, play fullback.

Broaddrick was most animated, however, when we stopped at a nursing home she’d run that had won awards for outstanding patient care and at a facility for children with severe disabilities she’d owned and operated before retiring in 2008. In fact, she said, the whole reason she met Bill Clinton on the day of the alleged attack was to ask for his help in procuring more funds for needy long-term-care patients.

For most of her life, Broaddrick said, she was politically independent: Clinton’s race for governor was the first time she ever showed the slightest interest in politics, and she only got involved because a friend in her women’s league talked her into it. She voted for George W. Bush twice but threw in with Barack Obama in 2008, and even gave $3,000 to his campaign, she said. At first she wasn’t sold on Trump: “I did not know what to make of this man.” Then, in May 2016, she watched an episode of Hannity in which Trump used the word rape to describe Broaddrick’s claim—it was a word she’d avoided. “I almost fell out of my chair. That’s when I was firmly in his corner,” she told me. “It was personal.” She felt vindicated, believed. Around this time, she also started gravitating toward Trump’s policies. She liked the border wall and his ideas for stimulating the economy, and she appreciated that this man seemed to be sacrificing a comfortable life to make America … “better,” she said.

When the campaign called, the day after the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released, to ask if she could fly to St. Louis for the debate, she went to Kevin for advice. “He told me, ‘Don’t do it, Mom—they’re just using you.’ ” But she told her son that she didn’t much mind being used if that meant underlining the hypocrisy of Hillary Clinton: How could she, of all people, express outrage about the tape? “The Republicans use the Clinton victims the same way the liberal media uses the victims—the supposed victims—of Mr. Trump and [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh,” Broaddrick said. “It’s truly politics.” She does have her limits, though. When she got wind that campaign operatives were angling to seat her within spitting distance of Bill Clinton at the debate in hopes of provoking a confrontation, she was horrified. “I would have walked out if that had happened,” she told me.

After the election, an unlikely turn of events: Broaddrick received something of a collective mea culpa from the left. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted that Democrats were “overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against Clinton”; the New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg published an op-ed headlined “I Believe Juanita”; and The Washington Post’s Richard Cohen wrote that he regretted dismissing Broaddrick’s plausible charges for so long. The proximate cause of the reassessment was #MeToo; the immediate one, at least for Cohen, was an interview Broaddrick did last fall for Slow Burn, Leon Neyfakh’s blockbuster podcast about Clinton’s impeachment. Some combination of the episode’s timing (on the heels of Kavanaugh’s Senate testimony) and Broaddrick’s beat-by-beat retelling of her interaction with Clinton—“He grabs me and that’s when things turned really bad”—upended people’s assumptions. “Gruesome” is how Neyfakh described the interview when we spoke on the phone.

Broaddrick is grateful for her newfound backing from bold-faced liberal names, but also wary of it, mostly because the #MeToo movement itself hasn’t exactly welcomed her. In 2017, Broaddrick was approached by Time magazine about participating in what would turn out to be its Person of the Year issue celebrating sexual-harassment whistle-blowers, and though she submitted a blurb in support of #MeToo, it ended up on the cutting-room floor. (A spokesperson for Time said that editors reached out to dozens of people for possible inclusion and that Broaddrick was one of many who didn’t make it, but Broaddrick views the omission as a personal snub: “#MeToo wants nothing to do with me.”) In April 2018, when the movement’s founder, Tarana Burke, was confronted, during a presentation, about whether she believed Broaddrick, she hedged—more evidence to Broaddrick that she was being shunned by the #MeToo universe.

The veracity of her story continues to be called into question, even by a handful of people on the right. About a week before we met, George Conway, the relentless Trump critic and husband of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, argued in The Washington Post that, if anything, E. Jean Carroll was at least as credible as Broaddrick, since the latter had once recanted. (As an informal adviser to Paula Jones, Conway had had a front-row seat for the flip-flop.)

The evolving opinion about Broaddrick’s claim hasn’t inspired her to temper her support for Trump. Part and parcel of that is her unwillingness to trust the word of a single one of the more than 15 women who have accused the president of sexual misconduct. (Trump has denied the allegations.) “They need to be investigated,” she likes to say.

Her determination to stand by her man is especially surprising when it comes to Carroll, because the two women’s stories are eerily parallel: Both women say they were tricked into being alone with the men. Both Carroll and Broaddrick told friends at the time of the incident, and these friends have corroborated their accounts. Both allegations surfaced decades after the fact. Both women said they were raped, as opposed to sexually harassed or groped like the other accusers of Clinton and Trump.

Broaddrick told me she thinks Carroll just wanted attention. Carroll also acted strangely during an appearance on CNN, Broaddrick said. “I’m sure she knows he’s gay, but it was like she was putting the make on Anderson Cooper.” Ultimately, Broaddrick said, her skepticism comes down to her gut—not just her feelings about Carroll but about all the women who have accused the president of sexual improprieties. “When you’ve been raped, you have a persona about you—it’s almost like you can sense it. I don’t have ESP, but you can almost feel their feelings if these things really happened to them.”

She knows a rape victim when she sees one. It’s hard to believe someone who has been so wounded by having her own rape case rejected (not to mention a person who has worked with abused children) would so blithely dispense with women who make similar claims.

Neyfakh has a theory about Broaddrick’s all-in attitude toward Trump: “She’s found a willing audience in conservative media. She believes what she needs to believe.” In other words, he said, “she’s a partisan hack, like the rest of us.”

Yes, and maybe she’s also embittered that the women now coming forward have been taken more seriously than she was—than she still is, in some quarters. For all the heightened awareness of sexual assault, we are, of course, a polarized nation. It is at once astonishing and predictable that many of us look at an individual and see only her tribe—even those of us with the most cause to avoid that kind of reductive thinking.

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