How Trump's Abuse of Women Hid in Plain Sight

The Republicans’ defenders argue that the timing of accusations of sexual assault are questionable. That’s only because they weren’t paying attention before.

Jamie Fine / Reuters

If you’re surprised, you weren’t paying attention.

The sudden onslaught of allegations of sexual assault against Donald Trump is appalling, yes. They add more detail and depth to the stories about the Republican nominee. But they are also entirely in keeping with everything that the electorate could, and should, have known about Trump before Wednesday night. With the complicity of too many conservatives, Trump’s abuse of women hid in plain sight, dismissed or laughed off for months.

Since The New York Times published a story based on the accounts of Jessica Leeds and Rachel Crooks Wednesday night, Trump’s surrogates have tried several tactics to push back. One is to question the timing of the revelation, and to argue that they represent a coordinated attack by the Clinton campaign. This is irrelevant to whether the stories are true, and besides, political observers acting affronted that a political campaign would conduct opposition research are as credible to Captain Renault’s expressions of shock about gambling at Rick’s Cafe. A second is to argue that Trump has somehow changed and is no longer the man he once was, but this, too, bears little scrutiny.

Trump adviser A.J. Delgado argued Wednesday night that “any reasonable woman” would have come forward much sooner. Trump spokeswoman Katrina Pierson accused the women lodging the accusations of having come forward to snag “15 minutes of fame,” a claim that starts to crumble upon the slightest scrutiny: How many women would be eager to thrust themselves into this sort of vortex of attacks? There are ample examples of alleged sexual-assault victims being reluctant to come forward for years, most famously in the Bill Cosby case. With Cosby, the willingness of some women to speak out inspired others to come forward. Something similar seems to be happening with Trump’s accusers now.

These attempts at discrediting the allegations are aided by members of the media who have questioned the timing, suggesting that the allegations might amount to an “oppo dump” by Hillary Clinton’s campaign or her allies. Here’s a smattering:

Joe Scarborough asked about the timing on his show, too, arguing it was an oppo drop, since the stories were 30 years old. That read on the situation was too cynical and horse-race focused even for Mark Halperin.

Newt Gingrich, rather than deny Jessica Leeds’s account, in which she said Trump touched her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt on a flight in the 1970s, referred to her experience as merely “a bad airplane flight” and asked why the Times had to reach back 30 years for an allegation.

All of the women who have come forward have cited the same, plausible, answer, for why came forward now, which is that they were outraged by Trump’s insistence, during Sunday’s debate that he had never sexually assaulted any women (offered only under duress, when Anderson Cooper asked him the question three times). But as far as the allegations’ veracity, it’s irrelevant whether the stories represent an oppo dump—although the range of accusations, geographically, temporally, and in news outlets big and small, would militate against all of the stories being coordinated. It matters whether they are true and relevant to the campaign. The timing question is a distraction.

Conservative radio host Bill Mitchell, whose name has become a byword for blind defense of Trump, tweeted, “What the hell is it with Liberals that even after travesties like the Duke Rape Case, we MUST accept the word of any and all accusers?”

The Duke lacrosse analogy is spurious. (I would know; I covered the entire case.) This isn’t a case of a single accuser making questionable accusations. With Trump, there are just multiple women, across a range of years, making allegations. But plenty of other women have told their stories in recent months and years, like Jill Harth, who briefly worked with Trump on pageants and who in April alleged that Trump had groped her at dinner and sexually assaulted her in his daughter’s bedroom.

You don’t have to take their word for it, either: You can take Trump’s word for it.

Leeds says that Trump tried put his hand up her skirt. Newt Gingrich thinks the allegation is spurious. Then again, Trump bragged about doing just that in the tape released on Friday: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

In May, former Miss Utah Temple Taggart described her introduction to Trump: “He kissed me directly on the lips. I thought, ‘Oh my God, gross.’ He was married to Marla Maples at the time. I think there were a few other girls that he kissed on the mouth. I was like ‘Wow, that’s inappropriate.’”

Now, here’s Trump, in the tape revealed last week: “I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”

On Wednesday, several former contestants in Trump pageants said that he would walk in on them while they were naked or partially dressed—including several teens. Once again, you don’t have to take their word for: Trump bragged about doing just that in an interview with Howard Stern in 2005:

Well, I'll tell you the funniest is that before a show, I'll go backstage and everyone's getting dressed, and everything else, and you know, no men are anywhere, and I'm allowed to go in because I'm the owner of the pageant and therefore I'm inspecting it. You know, I'm inspecting because I want to make sure that everything is good. You know, the dresses. “Is everyone okay?” You know, they're standing there with no clothes. “Is everybody okay?” And you see these incredible looking women, and so, I sort of get away with things like that. But no, I've been very good.

Some Trump supporters have also tried to excuse him with the mantra-like insistence that all of this is in the past. There’s Gingrich’s emphasis on the old allegation against Trump. Jerry Falwell Jr., another Trump endorser, contended Wednesday that while the tape was bad, he believes Trump is “a changed man.” Others have tried to portray the tape, made when Trump was a spry 59 years old and a father of four, as simply a boyish indiscretion. Yet the sweep of the allegations belies the point. They range from Leeds’s story in the 1970s to Harth’s accusations in the 1990s, up to Rachel Crooks’s 2002 experience and through the 2005 tape.

Arguing that these comments are part of a distant past also undercuts a central Trump response to the allegations, which is that what Bill Clinton did was worse. Besides, Clinton’s behavior doesn’t excuse Trump’s.

Of course, the sexual-assault allegations against Trump are only a small slice of what’s known about Trump’s interactions with women. There was Ivana Trump’s withdrawn accusation of marital rape. There were his many comments objectifying women, including his own daughter.

How did Trump reach this point, less than four weeks before the election, despite these allegations? That question will baffle observers for years to come. But there are a few reasons that immediately jump out. One is hyper-partisanship, and its subsidiary, negative partisanship: Because Republicans loathe Hillary Clinton so much, and because they find her so unacceptable, they have been willing to overlook Trump’s indiscretions (and clear dissonances with longstanding GOP dogma on social issues) in order to stop her. A second is that Trump’s coalition is largely, and increasingly, devoid of female supporters. The women who might have worked to derail Trump had already jumped ship long before.

A third is distrust of the media. Newspapers and other mainstream outlets have been focusing on Trump’s past for months, most notably with the Times’ May story. Yet many conservatives and conservative media outlets have spent decades arguing that the mainstream press is disreputable and untrustworthy. So when those outlets reported on Trump before, plenty of rank-and-file conservatives simply dismissed them out of hand.

The creation of an alternative media universe has proven to be a powerful tool for the right, helping to bring together a strong, cohesive conservative moment and countering real progressive leanings in the press. But in the case of Trump and women, that tactic has shown its limitations. Ignoring stories about prior abuse didn’t make them go away, and now the GOP is saddled with a likely unelectable nominee who could drag the party down.