- By Eli Saslow The Washington Post
She believed her best chance to be heard was through sheer repetition, so Rachel Crooks took her seat at the dining table and prepared to tell the story again. She was used to difficult audiences, to skeptics and Internet trolls who flooded her Facebook page with threats, but this was a generous crowd: a dozen women, all friends of her aunt, gathered for a casual dinner party on a Friday night. The hostess turned off the music, clanked a fork against her wineglass and gestured to Crooks. "Would you mind telling us about the famous incident?" she asked. "Not the sound-bite version, but the real version."
"The real version," Crooks said, nodding back. She took a sip of water and folded a napkin onto her lap.
"It all happened at Trump Tower," she said. "I had just moved to New York, and I was working as a secretary for another company in the building. That's where he forced himself on me."
Crooks, 35, had been publicly reliving this story for much of the past two years, ever since she first described it in an email to the New York Times several months before the 2016 election.
"I don't know if people will really care about this or if this will matter at all," she had written then, and after Donald Trump's election she had repeated her story at the Women's March, on the "Today" show and at a news conference organized by women's rights attorney Gloria Allred. Crooks had spoken to people dressed in #MeToo sweatshirts and to her rural neighbors whose yards were decorated with Trump signs. Early this month, she launched a campaign to become a Democratic state representative in Ohio, in part so she could share her story more widely with voters across the state.
And yet, after dozens of retellings, she still wasn't sure: Did people really care? Did it matter at all?
Despite her story, and the similar stories of more than a dozen other women, nothing had changed. Trump, who had denied all of the accusations, was still president of the United States, and Crooks was still circling back to the same moments on Jan. 11, 2006, that had come to define so much about her life.
"He was waiting for the elevator outside our office when I got up the nerve to introduce myself," she said now, remembering that day when she was 22 years old and Trump was 59. "It's not like I was trying to upset the apple cart. I don't know. Maybe I was being naive."
The hostess shook her head and then reached for Crooks' hand. "You did absolutely nothing wrong," she said.
"Thank you," Crooks said, even though she sometimes still wondered. She reached for her water glass and lifted it up into the air to use as a prop.
"He took hold of my hand and held me in place like this," she said, squeezing the sides of the water glass, shaking it gently from side to side. "He started kissing me on one cheek, then the other cheek. He was talking to me in between kisses, asking where I was from, or if I wanted to be a model. He wouldn't let go of my hand, and then he went right in and started kissing me on the lips."
She shook the water glass one final time and set it down. "It felt like a long kiss," she said. "The whole thing probably lasted two minutes, maybe less."
"Like you were another piece of his property," the hostess said.
"And with those orange lips!" another woman said.
Everyone at the table began to talk at the same time about Trump, and Crooks pushed her chair back and nodded along. She understood by now that for everyone else this was a story about the president - about what he had or hadn't done during those two minutes, and what that said about his morality and the character of the country that voted him into office. But the story Crooks was still trying to understand was her own, about what those two minutes had meant for her.
The hostess clinked her glass again to quiet the room. "Sorry, but can we go back to the kiss for a second?"
"Sure," Crooks said, and then she started to tell it again.
There were 19 women in all who made public accusations of sexual misconduct, or "The Nineteen," as they had come to be known on T-shirts and bumper stickers. Most had come forward with their stories after Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015, and the experiences they described having with him spanned five decades. They claimed Trump had "acted like a creepy uncle," or "squeezed my butt," or "eyed me like meat," or "stuck his hand up under my skirt," or "groped with octopus hands," or "pushed me against a wall," or "thrust his genitals," or "forced his tongue into my mouth" or "offered $10,000 for everything."
In response, Trump had called the accusations against him "total fabrications" based on "political motives" to destroy his campaign and then his presidency.
"Nothing ever happened with any of these women," Trump tweeted once. "Totally made up nonsense to steal the election. Nobody has more respect for women than me!"
One woman accused Trump of assaulting her in the middle of a commercial flight after they met as seatmates in the 1970s. Another said it happened in a conference room during the middle of a job interview. Another, a journalist for People magazine, said Trump forced his tongue into her mouth as they finished an interview for a feature story about his marriage to Melania. The list of accusers included a reality-TV host, a runner-up on "The Apprentice," a yoga instructor, an adult-film star and several women who had competed in Trump's beauty pageants: a Miss New Hampshire, Miss Washington, Miss Arizona and Miss Finland.
And then there was Crooks, who had never been on reality TV, never drank alcohol, never met anyone famous until she moved from her childhood home in Green Springs to New York City in the summer of 2005. Nobody else in three generations of her family had ever seen the appeal in leaving Green Springs, population 1,300, but nobody else was quite like her: striking and self-assured at 6 feet tall; all-state in basketball, volleyball and track; the high school salutatorian and "Most Likely to Succeed."
She wanted to backpack across Europe, earn her doctorate, work in high-end fashion and live in a skyscraper that looked out over something other than an endless grid of brown-and-green soybean fields. "New York is where you can make things happen," she had written to a friend back then, and a few weeks after graduating from college she persuaded her high school boyfriend, Clint Hackenburg, to move with her.
They rented a room in a cheap group house way out in Bay Ridge, and she took the first job she could find on Craigslist to pay rent, at an investment firm in Trump Tower called Bayrock. Her secretarial tasks were to make coffee, water the two office palm trees, polish the gold-trimmed mirrors, straighten the tassels on the Oriental rug at the entryway and sit at a mahogany welcome desk to greet visitors who came through the glass front doors.
She found the work mindless and demeaning, but all around her was the promise of New York. There was Oprah Winfrey, filming a TV show next to the two-story Christmas wreath in the main lobby. There was George Clooney, strolling past the office. There was Trump, an occasional business partner with Bayrock, standing right outside the glass doors every few days with his bodyguard as he waited for the elevator to take him back to his $100 million penthouse on the 66th floor. She remembered that sometimes he looked in and smiled at her. At least once she thought she saw him wave.
"If you're working in that building, you've got to at least meet him," Hackenburg told her, and after five months Crooks finally got up from her desk and went out to say hello. It was early in the morning, and the office was mostly empty. She walked toward Trump, who she remembers was standing by himself in the small waiting area near the elevators. She held out her hand, intent on introducing herself not as a fan or as a secretary but as a business partner.
"Mr. Trump, I wanted to say hi, since our companies do a little work together," she remembered telling him that day, and then, before she understood what was happening, she remembered Trump becoming the second man ever to kiss her.
"Fiction," was what Trump's campaign called her story when Crooks first told it publicly in 2016. "It is absurd to think that one of the most recognizable business leaders on the planet with a strong record of empowering women in his companies would do the things alleged," the campaign said.
But Crooks' version of that day was prompting more and more questions in her mind. Why did she sometimes feel as if he was still holding her in place? Why had she spent so much of the past decade recoiling from that moment - back behind the receptionist desk, back inside of her head, back home to the certainty and simplicity of small-town Ohio?
It was just a dreadful kiss, or at least that's what she kept trying to tell herself to quiet the confusion that had grown out of that moment, turning into shame, hardening into anxiety and insecurity until nearly a decade later, when she first started to read about other women whose accusations sounded so much like her own. Kissed at a party. Kissed in a dance club. Kissed during a business meeting. Kissed while attending a Mother's Day brunch at Mar-a-Largo.
"For the first time, I started to think it wasn't my fault for being clueless and naive, or for something I did wrong in seeming that way to him," Crooks said in one of her first public statements about Trump in 2016. Maybe together with the other accusers their stories had power, Crooks thought. Maybe, if the accusations alone weren't enough to hold Trump accountable for his behavior, the women could force the country to pay attention with better messaging and greater theatrics.
Late in 2017, Crooks agreed to join several accusers for television interviews and news conferences in New York. "A call to action," the invitation read, because their goal was to demand a congressional investigation into Trump's alleged sexual misconduct. Crooks wrote herself some reminders for effective public speaking: "Use detail and repetition." "Make it personal." "Focus on solutions."
She volunteered to speak first, squared her shoulders and then turned to face the cameras with the poise of the athlete she had been.
"By now all of you are probably familiar with my story," she said before beginning it again. The 24th floor. His lips coming toward hers. His hands holding her in place until the elevator arrived to take him upstairs. "Feelings of self-doubt and insignificance," she said.
"I know there are many worse forms of sexual harassment, but doesn't this still speak to character?" she said. "I don't want money. I don't need a lawsuit. I just want people to listen. How many women have to come forward? What will it take to get a response?"
The response that came was waiting every day on Crooks' computer, so one morning back home in Ohio she woke up and walked downstairs to her laptop. The front door was locked, the shades were drawn, and she sat next to the dog she had recently bought with hopes that a pet might help reduce her anxiety. She navigated to Facebook. "Good morning, Rachel!" read a greeting at the top of her page, and then she clicked open her messages.
"Very unbelievable story," read the first. "Try and get rich some other way."
"You ignorant, attention seeking cow."
"Nobody would touch you, especially not Trump. You look like a boy. A gun to your head would be good for our nation."
She had tried changing the privacy settings on her Facebook page and logging off Twitter, but there was no way to barricade herself from so much hostility. It came into her email inbox at the tiny college in Ohio where she worked as a recruiter of international students. It came when she walked her dog around the block or took her nephews trick-or-treating.
"So many stares and weird comments that give me social anxiety," was how she explained it once to a friend, because now each interaction required a series of calculations.
Two thirds of people in Seneca County had voted for Trump. Ninety-four percent of Trump supporters told pollsters that their views were "not impacted" by the sexual harassment allegations against him. So Crooks wondered: Did the majority of her friends, co-workers and neighbors think she was lying? Or, even worse in her mind, did they believe her but simply not care?
"An honest, timeless, values-first community" was how one tourism slogan described Seneca County, and Crooks had always believed those things to be true. Her father had worked 39 years as a mechanic at Whirlpool and then retired with a decent pension. Her sister was raising four children in the same converted house where Crooks had grown up. Everybody in town knew her family - four generations of Crookses clustered within a few square blocks - so a local newspaper had interviewed community members about Crooks's allegations against Trump.
"A fine, wholesome young girl," her high school volleyball coach told the paper, and that seemed to Crooks like the most Ohio compliment of all. But then the story ended and the comments began, and Crooks kept reading because she knew some of the commenters, too.
"I'm a friend of the family. She's lying."
"If he was going to make a move on a woman, it wouldn't be her!"
"We know Trump has class, so why would he waste his time on some average chick like this?"
In her "values-first" community, it now felt to Crooks as if politics had become a fissure that was always deepening, the facts distorted by both sides, until even her own family no longer agreed on what or whom to believe. Her parents and sister supported her, even if they disliked talking about politics. Her grandmother, a staunch conservative, hugged Crooks after reading the original article about Trump's harassment in the New York Times but then sometimes talked admiringly about Trump. Another of her relatives was often posting laudatory stories about the president on Facebook and dismissing many of the attacks against him as purely political, until one day Crooks decided to email her.
"Your candidate of choice kissed me without my consent," Crooks wrote, and then she began to wonder whether there was some way to tell her story, or some piece of evidence, that could change herrelative's mind. During one news conference, she had asked Trump to release the security videotapes from the 24th floor that day, but he never responded. She had not heard from him, or anyone representing him, since she came home from New York. "What can I ever do to prove this happened and that it impacted my life?" she said.
Maybe the proof was the email she had sent to her mother, from the Bayrock office in New York, at 1:27 that afternoon in 2006: "Hey Ma, my day started off rough. . .had a weird incident with Mr. Trump."
Or the email she sent a few hours later to her sister at 3:05 p.m.: "I must just appear to be some dumb girl that he can take advantage of. . .ugh!"
Or the email she sent a few days after that to another relative: "Ah yes, the Donald kiss . . . very creepy man, let me tell you!"
Or the recorded conversation between Trump and Billy Bush on an "Access Hollywood" bus late in 2005, months before Crooks says she met Trump by the elevators: "You know, I'm automatically attracted to beautiful women. I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything."
"By all means, have your opinions," Crooks wrote to her relative instead, because more and more she believed no version of her story could bridge the widening divide.
"It makes me ill, to be quite honest with you . . . when my own family members not only vote for but publicly defend this person," she wrote. "For my own sanity, I will not engage you further on this."
And then there was one of her other relatives, her aunt, Barbara Radebaugh, who was often encouraging her niece to engage and to fight. "Keep speaking your truth!" Radebaugh wrote to her, and she invited Crooks to Columbus in late January to participate in the second annual Women's March.
The two of them had traveled together from Ohio to the inaugural march in Washington on a bus with several dozen strangers, and now many of those women gathered again in Columbus for a small reunion a few hours before the march.
"What a transformative, empowering year," Radebaugh said to the group, because one of the women from that bus ride had become a Democratic fundraiser, another had started volunteering for reproductive rights, another had joined the board of the local Pride parade, and two more were running for seats in the Ohio House of Representatives. Crooks had yet to officially launch her campaign, but Mary Relotto had already raised $20,000, knocked on thousands of doors and filed all of her paperwork. She was scheduled to give a kickoff speech in Columbus, and now she asked Crooks whether she would be willing to share her story about Trump during the march.
"You are an inspiration to me," Relotto told her. "I want to champion you, to champion each other. Your voice and your story in this is huge."
"Thank you," Crooks said. "I don't always feel that way, but -"
"It's huge. So let me ask you: Do you want to engage with the people?"
"I don't know. This feels more like your moment."
"Thank you, but the people need to see a face. You have a powerful story. It's up to you how far you want to take it. What do you want to do?"
It was the same question Crooks' sister had asked over the phone that morning in 2006, minutes after Trump got onto his elevator and Crooks retreated back to an empty office at Bayrock to call home.
"What do you want to do?" her sister had asked, and together they had gone through the options. Report the harassment to building security guards who wore Trump's name on their uniforms? Tell her managers at Bayrock, where Trump was a key business partner? Confide in Bayrock's founder, Tevfik Arif, a personal friend of Trump and his wife, Melania?
The only thing she could think to do instead of reporting it was go quietly back to her desk for the afternoon and then back to the rental house to tell Hackenburg. Maybe she had done something to encourage Trump, she said. Maybe she wasn't coming across as smart, serious or professional. "Her self-confidence was absolutely rocked," Hackenburg said.
She didn't think of it as a tragedy. She had gone on to graduate school in Ohio, bought a home close to her family, in the nearby town of Tiffin, and begun a career that allowed her to travel around the world, but she also believed some small part of her had never come back from New York. "It was one of the first real failures or defeats of my life, where the world wasn't what I hoped it was going to be, and I started to really doubt myself," she said.
For several years she had barely told anybody about Trump, because she assumed nothing would come of her story. Now she had spent 18 months repeating it and proving herself right.
"I am not sure I've changed one person's mind," she said.
But what choice did she have, except to let it go silent as if it never happened at all? She didn't want to retreat anymore from that moment, to cycle back into self-doubt. So she would go on television. She would speak at the news conferences. She would deal with the hate mail. She would run for office. She would repeat her story over and over whenever she was asked, even now, to a few women in Columbus marching alongside her in the snow.
"It happened right by the elevators," she said, beginning the story again, even if she was telling it mostly for herself.