This essay is part of a series The New Yorker will be running through the election titled “Trump and the Truth.”
The most painful misrepresentation in Donald Trump’s largely lie-based campaign did not emerge until after the release of the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump described his way of interacting with women to whom he’s attracted: pushing himself on them physically, without obtaining consent. “I just start kissing them,” he bragged, talking to Billy Bush, the show’s host. “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” At the second Presidential debate, Anderson Cooper pointed out to Trump that he was describing sexual assault, and pressed him on the obvious question: Had he actually ever done the things he bragged about? No, Trump said—and he has continued to stick to this answer, despite the fact that twenty women have now come forward by name with firsthand stories about Trump’s predatory behavior—thirteen of them within just the past two weeks.
A Washington Post/ABC News poll recently asked respondents whether they believed that Trump “probably has or has not made unwanted sexual advances toward women.” Sixty-eight per cent of registered voters believed that he had; only fourteen per cent believed that he had not. Forty-three per cent of likely voters in the poll said that they would vote for Trump, suggesting that a significant portion of Trump’s supporters think that he’s lying, and do not care.
Step right up and spin a wheel of statements made by Donald Trump—and our investigations of them.
The assumption that Trump is lying is a reasonable one. As many have pointed out, this is not a “he said, she said” situation. Jake Tapper, on CNN, called it a “she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said, she said situation”—and, of course, Trump said it, too. The question in the Post/ABC poll could be reframed: Which Trump do you believe? The candidate in the final stretch of his failing Presidential bid, or the man in 2005, whose boasts are corroborated by more than a dozen women? Trump lodged his own sexual-misconduct allegations. And, to deny them, he has to impute dishonesty not just to all the women who have come out in agreement with him but to his former self.
Trump also must undermine the image he’s built for himself as the wild card who doesn’t care about propriety, who always tells it like it is. But, over the past week, he has proved incapable of this maneuver. Even in his denials, Trump is acting like Trump, offering a string of epithets and diminishments that reinforce the idea that preying on women is a normal thing to do. It seems entirely clear that these allegations disturb Trump only because they inconvenience him. He has not once spoken about the matter as if he understands that groping women, in itself, is wrong.
The earliest accusation of sexual misconduct against Trump came from his ex-wife Ivana, who, during a divorce deposition in 1990, described being violently raped. (Later, without retracting her story, Ivana said that she didn’t mean the word in a “literal or criminal” sense.) Then, this May, the New York Times published a story that detailed a 1996 deposition in the case of Jill Harth, who had worked with Trump on a beauty pageant in Atlantic City, and alleged that Trump had groped her under the table at a business dinner. In the same piece, Temple Taggart McDowell, a former Miss Utah, described being kissed, inappropriately, on the mouth. Then, in early October, Harth gave the Times more details: Trump had kissed her, she said, despite her “desperately protesting,” and had pushed her against a wall.
After the “Access Hollywood” tape, the first two women to come forward were Rachel Crooks and Jessica Leeds, who talked to the Times. Leeds says that Trump groped her on an airplane more than three decades ago; Crooks, who worked in Trump Tower, says that Trump kissed her on the mouth in 2005 in a way that felt like a “violation.” The same day, the Palm Beach Post published Mindy McGillivray’s account of being grabbed by Trump at Mar-a-Lago thirteen years ago, and Natasha Stoynoff, a writer for People, published a disturbing account of being attacked by Trump at Mar-a-Lago in 2005. Two days later, the Washington Post published Kristin Anderson’s account of the time Trump “touched her vagina through her underwear” at a night club in the early nineties, and a former “Apprentice” contestant, Summer Zervos, held a press conference with the civil-rights attorney Gloria Allred, stating that Trump kissed her “aggressively” and touched her breast in a prolonged attack. Two days after that, Cathy Heller told People that Trump had forcibly tried to kiss her at Mar-a-Lago in the late nineties. Another former “Apprentice” contestant, Jennifer Murphy, who supports Trump, told Grazia that he kissed her on the mouth after a job interview. This morning, another new accuser came forward: Karena Virginia, also represented by Allred, who said that Trump grabbed her breast at the U.S. Open in 1998.
There are other stories alleging less physical but no less unnerving behavior. Cassandra Searles and Samantha Holvey, former beauty contestants, have described separate instances of Trump leering at them and “checking everyone out” backstage. So has Carrie Prejean, who supports Trump but detailed an uncomfortable pageant scene in her memoir, and Rowanne Brewer Lane, who told the Times that Trump pressured her to strip and change into a swimsuit—though she later clarified that this was not “a negative experience.” Tasha Dixon, Bridget Sullivan, Mariah Billado, and Victoria Hughes, all former Miss Teen USA or Miss USA contestants, spoke to BuzzFeed and the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles, corroborating Trump’s own boasts about walking backstage when his contestants—as he put it to Howard Stern—were “standing there with no clothes.” Three other anonymous ex-pageant contestants have given the same story to BuzzFeed; another has spoken with the Guardian.
That makes twenty-four women who have corroborated Trump’s own boasting, twenty of whom have offered up their identities. As always happens when someone accuses a high-profile man of sexual misconduct, these women will be tied to their unpleasant, formerly private stories for life. And still, save for his ex-wife Ivana’s sworn account of Trump ripping her hair out and then raping her, the women have described nothing that Trump has not, in the past, voluntarily confessed himself. He remains his own most prolific accuser: consider the time he told ABC that he had advised his friends to “be rougher” with their wives; or the 1992 video in which he says in front of a very young girl that he’ll be “dating her in ten years”; or the Chicago Tribune story, also from 1992, in which he gives two fourteen-year-olds a “couple” of years before he’ll date them. In 1999, Trump told Stern in mock dismay that his daughter Ivanka, then seventeen, had made him promise never to date anyone younger than her. In 2004, he said that it was fine to call his daughter a “piece of ass.” This isn’t sexual misconduct as much as it is the language of a man who doesn’t believe that such a thing really exists.
Trump’s accusers have tellingly similar stories: he kissed them, he groped them, he leered at them, he seemed blind to the idea of mutual interest. He also did all of this in familiar surroundings—as if the women were merely part of the buildings and organizations that he owned. Trump has also responded to their allegations in a consistent and conspicuously aggressive way. In 1993, he called Ivana’s allegations “obviously false.” When the Daily Beast followed up on this story last year, Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, said that, “by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse,” and then he threatened revenge over the story. As Trump has done, Cohen refuted an allegation of sexual violence in an alarming tone that immediately brings sexual violence to mind. “What I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting,” he said. (He has since apologized.)
In the Times story about Rachel Crooks and Jessica Leeds, Trump “began shouting” when reached for comment; he suggested that the Times was fabricating stories “to hurt him,” and called the reporter a “disgusting human being.” Last Friday, at a rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, Trump blathered, “These people are sick. These people are sick.” The accusations were “all false, they’re totally invented, fiction. All one-hundred-per-cent totally and completely fabricated. Never met this person, these people, I don’t know who they are.” He repeated this lie at Wednesday night’s debate. “I didn’t know any of these women,” he said. “I didn’t see these women.” (He also claimed, falsely, that their stories “have been largely debunked” and added, bizarrely, “I didn’t even apologize to my wife.”) In fact, he worked with many of his accusers, and even the witness produced by Trump’s campaign to discredit Leeds—a man who, by the way, once boasted about arranging underage sex parties for politicians—acknowledged that Leeds and Trump were sitting next to each other on the plane.
The day before the North Carolina rallies, Trump had addressed Natasha Stoynoff’s story in West Palm Beach, Florida, implying that she wasn’t good-looking enough to assault. “Take a look, you take a look,” he said. “Look at her, look at her words, you tell me what you think.” He said that if Stoynoff were telling the truth she’d have written about the incident in her story for People. (Six named sources have since corroborated Stoynoff’s account.) At the Greensboro rally, he addressed Leeds’s story in a similar manner: she wasn’t hot enough to be preyed on. “Believe me, she would not be my first choice,” he said. Trump implied that he had built up a trustworthy record—not in terms of moral conduct but in terms of women’s looks. “You understand me for a lot of years, O.K.? When you looked at that horrible woman last night, you said I don’t think so. I don’t think so.”
But the worst thread in this entire rotten fabric is the one in which Trump positions himself as the victim. At another rally, this past Friday, in Charlotte, he even used the word—he was “a victim of one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country,” he said. He and his team have repeatedly defended themselves by invoking the idea that women with assault stories are looking for “some free fame,” as Trump said at the Greensboro rally, or “free publicity,” as Hope Hicks said about Kristin Anderson. Trump raised the issue again at Wednesday night’s debate, saying that the accusers had been brought forward by the Clinton campaign to enjoy their “ten minutes of fame,” as if any person could possibly find this enjoyable.
To try to pin these women’s stories on the Clinton campaign is an extraordinary low, given that Trump is also accusing Clinton of somehow rigging the election. It’s nothing to him, equating sexual-assault accusations with the spectre of election fraud, casting the former in the light of grand conspiracy. He has even seemed to imply that most accusations of sexual misconduct are dubious. “I don’t think they’d happen with very many people,” he said, referring to the women’s stories, “but they certainly aren’t going to happen with me.” He was tired of turning on the television, he said, and seeing these stories. So are we. “I think it’s a disgusting thing,” he said. So do I. But for Trump, evidently, it’s the fact of women speaking, of existing beyond his control, that’s disgusting. He isn’t used to what’s happened to him this year—all these women getting in his way.
Previously in the series: Carolyn Kormann on climate-change denial, Jonathan Blitzer on the “rigged” election, Margaret Talbot on the “lying” media, John Cassidy on Trump’s charitable giving, Jelani Cobb on black outreach as campaign ploy, Jia Tolentino on Judge Gonzalo P. Curiel, Adam Davidson on the interest-rate flip-flop, Adam Gopnik on conspiracy theories, Adam Davidson on the unemployment-rate hoax, and Eyal Press on immigration and crime.