Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Sarah Jones, and Olivia Nuzzi discuss what the treatment of E. Jean Carroll’s allegation against the president says about our political climate.
Ben: Since New York published E. Jean Carroll’s allegation that Donald Trump raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the mid-1990s, the story has received a lot of secondary press coverage. But there have also been questions about whether the reaction to it has been proportionate to the gravity of the charges leveled against the president. Some major news outlets, most notably the New York Times, were criticized for not giving the story more prominent placement. (The paper’s executive editor agreed with the detractors.) Democratic lawmakers have not been talking about it all that much, with some exceptions, and the predictable Republican response has been near silence — though Lindsey Graham did say, “He’s denied it. That’s all I needed to hear.”
With the caveat that plenty of people are outraged over Carroll’s allegation, what does the relative mutedness of the response say, if anything, about our current moment?
Olivia: It reminds me of the reaction to the Daily Beast story in 2015 by Tim Mak and Brandy Zadrozny that resurfaced Ivana Trump’s rape allegation against Donald Trump from their 1989 divorce proceedings. I remember, at the time, we were all a little perplexed about the apparent reluctance from mainstream news publications and television networks to cover the story aggressively. It wasn’t really until months later, as more allegations of sexual misconduct began to emerge, that it seemed like cable news and newspapers were comfortable addressing it. But obviously at this point, there have been 22 allegations against the president (two of them rape allegations). It doesn’t make sense that anyone would be reluctant to touch it due to the subject matter. Yet that seems as plausible an explanation as general fatigue.
Sarah: At this point in the Trump presidency, it’s really difficult to avoid full-on cynicism. I don’t know what to say to editors who didn’t think it deserved more coverage. I can only speculate about their motivations. Maybe they don’t think it’ll sell papers or keep viewers or get clicks; maybe it doesn’t even feel like news anymore. I look at the New York Times and think about its multiple stories on Alan Dershowitz’s travails on Martha’s Vineyard and compare that to its coverage of the Carroll story, and I despair.
As for Democratic lawmakers, I think it’s a self-inflicted passivity. Most of them already seem to have decided that they aren’t going to try to impeach Trump, and I didn’t really expect this story to move the needle, though it should have.
Ben: It’s not like the Times doesn’t publish a constant stream of critical stories about the president, though.
Olivia: Yeah, I was just about to say, if you compare the willingness to cover any West Wing palace-intrigue story to the willingness to cover this, you’d think the palace intrigue had more serious implications for the country. I was pretty surprised by what the Democratic presidential candidates had to say this weekend in South Carolina when asked if Congress should investigate. Nobody was, like, very strongly calling for an inquiry. And maybe that’s because the ones with the power to try to make it happen don’t wanna be blamed if it doesn’t, or because it seems like such an inquiry would just be a never-ending fight with Trump over what, at the end of the day, will likely come down to a he-said, she-said.
But if you look at what Elizabeth Warren said when Michelle Goldberg from the Times asked her if Congress has a role in investigating, while her response is unfortunately accurate, it’s still a little surprising to me how resigned to the bleakness of it all it was. She said, “We know Donald Trump’s character. And it’s revealed every single day. There aren’t any real surprises. Just the details.”
Ben: Trump’s personal unpopularity is the thing that drives his low approval ratings, so you’d think Democrats might be trying to emphasize that he’s a sexual predator a little more firmly.
Olivia: On the one hand, I feel like, do they need to emphasize it? Is that what the issue is, that it hasn’t been emphasized enough? I think most people, including his supporters, understand that he’s like this and he’s probably capable of this behavior and has probably behaved this way for his entire life.
Sarah: I think Democrats generally overestimate the likelihood that there’ll be serious backlash to more aggressive criticism or reproach of Trump.
Olivia: Yes, I think that’s right, Sarah.
Ben: I am personally not in favor of impeachment, because I think it would likely be a political mistake. I have a harder time seeing the downside of going after Trump’s moral character all the time.
Sarah: Carroll herself says in her book that she knows that Trump’s core supporters will probably think her story is hilarious — that for them, it will somehow add to Trump’s appeal. But we are still talking about a relatively small group of people, compared to other demographics that Democrats could win. I didn’t think Democrats should run on impeachment, but I have an increasingly difficult time believing that they should avoid the issue going forward.
Olivia: I don’t see a downside other than is it wasted energy? How do you emphasize his character all the time in a way that’s productive? And in a way that doesn’t transfer the Trump fatigue onto you?
Olivia: Maybe it won’t work in the end, maybe it’ll turn out to be the wrong strategy or unsustainable, but I do think there’s something to be said about Pete Buttigieg’s approach. It feels like part of what makes people excited when he’s out campaigning is the fact that they get to think about something else besides Trump for 30 minutes.
Whereas when Gillibrand talks to voters, she’s all Trump, all the time, and obviously there are other factors that contribute to her unpopularity, but that doesn’t seem to get anyone excited that I’ve seen, even if it does validate how they feel.
Sarah: I think people do like to have an idea of what the country could look like post-Trump — how exactly do we rebuild, if we get rid of him.
Olivia: When I asked the candidates about a congressional response to the allegation, I kept trying to emphasize that the difference with this one is it’s the first allegation of a serious sex crime to emerge since Trump assumed office. The other ones, it wouldn’t have been possible for there to have been a congressional inquiry. And I kind of got blank stares in response to that.
Ben: Among people who complain that X Trump outrage doesn’t get attention, there’s a sense that we’re somehow letting him get away with behavior that would be disqualifying for just about anyone else. But given that it’s unlikely many people will change their opinion of him as a person at this late date, and given that there’s an election in the not too distant future, is a fairly modest reaction actually the rational approach?
Sarah: Is it really unlikely that people will change their opinion of him as a person? I’m not actually sure that’s true.
Olivia: I mean, I guess my question is what would a non-modest reaction from Democratic lawmakers look like.
Sarah: I wouldn’t expect his most fervent supporters to experience a collective epiphany, but I don’t think it’s impossible that some swing voters could change their minds.
Ben: Maybe I’m the cynical one.
Olivia: If there’s a recession, I could see it being more likely that voters change their minds. Or a war with Iran.
Ben: I agree that his approval ratings could change, but I meant that people’s views of him as a human being are unlikely to shift. As you said, we know who he is.
Olivia: I don’t think that anyone really needs to be convinced that he might be a sexual predator. I think everyone knows that. It’s just that some people don’t think it matters. I don’t know how you go about addressing those types of people if you’re a Democrat hoping to change minds.
Ben: Yeah, I don’t want to make it out like it’s an easy task.
Sarah: I don’t know either, to be perfectly honest. I wrestle with it all the time