In #MeToo moment, ‘not me’ defense works uniquely for President Trump

1:58 p.m Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017 Nation & World
The day after a controversial President Donald Trump tweet about New York Democratic U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Trump speaks on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, during a meeting with lawmakers on tax cuts in the Cabinet Meeting Room of the White House. Attending the meeting are, from left, Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn.; Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas; Trump; Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah; Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

They have fallen, one after another, like great trees in the face of some powerful wind.

Movie producer Harvey Weinstein. Actor Kevin Spacey. NBC broadcaster Matt Lauer. Talk show host Charlie Rose. Michigan congressman John Conyers. U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. And on Tuesday, U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama.

Each of those powerful men – and a long and growing list of other prominent men – have seen their careers derailed by allegations of sexual misconduct. They’ve had lucrative contracts terminated, been forced to resign or defeated at the polls.

But the most prominent and powerful man in the country, President Donald Trump, has faced no such consequence, despite the allegations of 17 women who say he behaved inappropriately toward them.

The rest of the country is having a #MeToo moment, but not Trump. For him, so far, it’s a “not me” moment.

Theories abound about how Palm Beach County’s most famous part-time resident has remained immune to the suddenly toxic consequences of sexual misconduct allegations.

Some view the allegations as old news, claims that voters knew about and paid little heed to in electing Trump. Still others believe Trump simply would not do what the women have alleged.

And then there is Trump’s response to the allegations. He has flatly denied all of the allegations and called those making them liars. He has said he hasn’t met any of the accusers, despite photographic and video evidence to the contrary.

He bragged on that now-infamous “Access Hollywood” tape about kissing women without their permission and grabbing women by their vagina. As the tape’s release threatened his campaign, he acknowledged that one of the voices on the tape was his and apologized.

But The New York Times has reported that, in recent months, the president has taken to questioning whether the tape was authentic.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Reggae/pop artist Shaggy performs during the Summer Jam 2012 at the Meyer Amphitheatre in West Palm Beach. A Florida Atlantic University professor has compared President Donald Trump’s response to sexual harassment allegations to Shaggy’s popular song, ‘It Wasn’t Me.’ (Richard Graulich/The Palm Beach Post)

Taken together, Trump’s response amounts to what Jane Caputi, professor of women’s studies and communications at Florida Atlantic University, might call the Shaggy ‘Wasn’t Me’ Defense.

“The efficacy of such a strategy of denial, even when caught red-handed, is amusingly but also tellingly promoted in the popular Shaggy song, ‘It Wasn’t Me,’” Caputi told The Palm Beach Post. “This is about a man whose girlfriend catches him in a sexual act with another woman. Shaggy’s advice to the man is to just keep denying it to the bitter end, as any estimable ‘player’ would do.”

That the actions of a United States president might mirror those of a character in the reggae artist’s comic pop song says much about the current state of political play.

So, too, does a recent editorial blasting the president for tweeting that U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., one of a handful of senators who have called for Trump’s resignation, once was “begging” him for campaign contributions “and would do anything for them.”

USA Today’s editorial board wrote: “With his latest tweet, clearly implying that a United States senator would trade sexual favors for campaign cash, President Trump has shown he is not fit for office. Rock bottom is no impediment for a president who can always find room for a new low.”

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks to the media during her daily press briefing at the White House on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017 in Washington, D.C. Sanders responded to questions about President Donald Trump’s tweet directed at U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The paper’s editorial board later wrote that “a president who would all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore is not fit to clean the toilets in the Barack Obama Presidential Library or to shine the shoes of George W. Bush.”

Fox News, on the other hand, has adopted the line of thinking offered by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders in defense of the president — that he frequently uses the terms “begging” and “will do anything” in tweets about his political opponents. Assumptions of sexual harassment are not made when he says such things about men, Sanders said.

“He’s talking about way the system functions as it is,” she said. “Politicians beg for money. That’s not something new. No way this is sexist at all.”

Trump’s tweet came on the same day U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, led a call for a congressional investigation of the allegations against the president.

Frankel, who chairs the Democratic Working Women’s Group, said 59 congresswomen had signed a letter asking the House of Representatives’ Committee of Government Oversight and Reform to formally investigate the allegations against Trump. By the end of the day, Frankel said 139 members of Congress, Democratic men and women, had joined the call for a congressional investigation.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, leads a press conference Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2107, during which the Democratic Working Women’s Group called for the House “investigating President Trump for sexual misconduct.” Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., look on (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

At a press conference announcing the call for an investigation, Frankel spoke with confidence about the effort.

“The ‘Me Too’ movement has arrived,” Frankel said. “Sexual abuse will not be tolerated, whether it’s by a Hollywood producer, the chef of a restaurant, a member of Congress or the president of the United States. No man or woman is above the law.”

Unlike with other men whose careers have been damaged by allegations of sexual misconduct, Trump has a red wall of protection – Republicans in Congress who do not see it to be in their political interest to join the call for an investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against the president.

That reality was underscored by the response to the Democratic Working Women’s Group’s letter. U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the Oversight Committee chairman, referred the letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, saying his committee doesn’t investigate potential crimes. He also noted that the Justice Department doesn’t investigate possible violations of state law, leaving open the possibility that the letter will result in no investigation at all.

On Thursday, the Democratic Working Women’s Group responded to Gowdy, writing: “We appreciate that you recognize these allegations as potential crimes. That said, our request did not ask for a prosecution, but rather an investigation into serious allegations of sexual abuse by Donald Trump.”

The group also disputed Gowdy’s assertion that his committee does not investigate potential crimes, pointing to instances when it did just that “even when parallel prosecutions were underway by the Justice Department.”

“At a time when women across the country are coming forward with their own harrowing stories of sexual harassment and assault at all levels of society, your reluctance to investigate sends the absolute wrong message,” the group wrote Gowdy. “It tells women that powerful leaders are unwilling to investigate this serious misconduct and creates a chilling effect on victims coming forward. It protects the President instead of giving victims the right to be heard.”

Gowdy’s voters, however, are very much Trump’s voters, the numbers would suggest. And those voters might well be displeased by actions that could damage a president they support. In 2016, Trump won Gowdy’s congressional district with 60 percent of the vote, while Gowdy won re-election with 67 percent of the vote.

Democrats, meanwhile, are positioning themselves to capitalize on what they perceive as Trump’s failings with female voters. Several high-profile Democrats, including a few who might challenge him in 2020, regularly castigate the president as sexist and disrespectful to women.

The large-scale Women’s March protests across the country that greeted Trump’s inauguration indicated great displeasure with the new president. Two research professors who tracked the protests said an estimated 3.2 million to 5.2 million people participated, making them among the largest protests in the nation’s history.

Those protests would suggest that Trump was virulently opposed by women. In fact, Trump fared only slightly worse among women than had the two previous Republicans who ran for president.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., got 43 percent of the female vote when he lost to Barack Obama in 2008, according to exit poll data analyzed by the Pew Research Center. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney got 44 percent of the female vote in his losing 2012 campaign. Trump got 42 percent of the female vote when he defeated former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the first woman to win a major party’s nomination for president.

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Roy Moore addresses supporters after a historic loss to Democrat Doug Jones on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2017 in Montgomery, Ala. (Miguel Juarez Lugo/Zuma Press/TNS)

If Roy Moore’s defeat in Alabama is a guide, Republicans are seeing some slippage in support from women.

Exit polling showed Doug Jones crushed Moore among women, winning 57 percent of their vote compared to 41 percent for Moore.

But Susan MacManus, political science professor at the University of South Florida, said Democrats would be wise not to assume that Moore’s failings among female voters in Alabama foretells future Trump failings among women across the electorate.

She said it “has never been the case” that female voters are a cohesive unit, motivated by the same things in different locations.

“For a lot of women, party runs deeper than the individual (candidate),” she said.

Toward that end, the allegations against Trump – and the calls from Democrats for an investigation – could be seen as simply a partisan tactic, MacManus said.

“It seems the only women complaining are Democrats,” she said. “That minimizes it very quickly. It’s become a very partisan issue, and people have dug in their heels.”

Beyond having the allegations against Trump seen as partisan attacks, Democrats face another threat as they look to capitalize on Trump’s perceived weakness among women: the possibility of a backlash against doling out punishment to powerful men who have merely been accused of wrongdoing.

Already, MacManus said, some feminists are writing about what they describe as a lack of due process and instant punishments that do no favors to women seeking fair treatment and an even playing field.

The potential for a strong backlash against the current climate gives Trump and his allies every reason to fight any formal investigation.

“The longer there’s a sort of delay on it, the better off he could be,” MacManus said.

Even after Gowdy deflected the idea of his committee investigating Trump, Frankel said she and her colleagues aren’t giving up on the effort, which will keep the topic of the allegations against the president alive.

MacManus said that could spell trouble for other Republicans on the ballot in upcoming years.

“Republicans running will have to answer what should happen to him,” she said. “They’ll all have to face that.”