It’s a damning critique of President Donald Trump that his own staffers treated his relatively muted response to a sexual-assault allegation against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh as a minor miracle. CNN reported earlier this week that aides were “quietly stunned” that he managed to not directly criticize Christine Blasey Ford as her account roiled Washington. “Hopefully he can keep it together until Monday,” an unnamed White House official told Axios on Thursday. “That’s only, like, another 48 hours right?”
He didn’t even last that long. Trump opened Friday morning by aggressively casting doubt on Blasey’s account, questioning why she didn’t report her allegations to law enforcement in the early 1980s, immediately after the alleged assault.
“Judge Brett Kavanaugh is a fine man, with an impeccable reputation, who is under assault by radical left wing politicians who don’t want to know the answers, they just want to destroy and delay,” he wrote on Twitter. Trump then criticized Blasey for the first time. “I have no doubt that, if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says, charges would have been immediately filed with local law enforcement authorities by either her or her loving parents,” he wrote. “I ask that she bring those filings forward so that we can learn date, time, and place!”
Trump knows full well that neither Blasey nor her parents filed charges or otherwise spoke to the police. She told The Washington Post that she didn’t share her account with anyone in detail until a therapy session with her husband in 2012. Trump’s goal is clear: to signal that she’s less credible because she didn’t turn to law enforcement at the time. But that’s the norm for crimes involving sexual violence. The Justice Department estimated in 2016 that only 23 percent of Americans who were raped or sexually assaulted that year reported it to police. Surveys attribute the low reporting rate to the trauma of sexual violence, the stigma that’s still widely attached to it, and the fear of retaliation and disbelief.
Those fears are well-founded. The Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig this week documented the story of Amber Wyatt, who in 2006 immediately reported her alleged rape by classmates when she was 16-years-old. She faced widespread social backlash for naming a popular soccer player as one of her assailants, and the investigation was incomplete at best. The Arlington, Texas police didn’t question either of her alleged attackers despite DNA evidence that linked one of them to the crime. Wyatt herself wasn’t even called to testify before the grand jury, which ultimately declined to indict the two boys. The #MeToo movement has made clear that Wyatt’s experience isn’t an isolated one.
Trump’s comments contribute to that problem. They also come as no surprise. The president routinely defends men accused of sexual misconduct and expresses disbelief towards the women who share their experiences with it. He described Roger Ailes as a “very, very good man” after the Fox News CEO stepped down after decades of sexually harassing dozens of women at the network. “I don’t think he did anything wrong,” Trump told reporters about Bill O’Reilly when the former Fox anchor’s multi-million-dollar sexual harassment settlements became public. After White House aide Rob Porter resigned after two of his ex-wives accused him of domestic violence, Trump highlighted Porter’s claim of innocence and wished him a “wonderful career.” He questioned why the women who said Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore sexually assaulted them hadn’t come forward sooner. “He says it didn’t happen,” Trump remarked. “And you know, you have to listen to him also.”
The only exception to this pattern is when one of Trump’s political adversaries is accused of wrongdoing. After the Access Hollywood tape surfaced during the 2016 election, he held a press conference with four women who had accused Bill Clinton of harassment and assault. He has also relished the downfalls of Democratic lawmakers like Anthony Weiner and Al Franken.
Even before his comments on Friday, when he was being praised simply for not attacking Ford, the president made clear where he stood by repeatedly expressing sympathy for Kavanaugh, and none for Ford. “I feel so badly that he’s going through this,” Trump remarked on Wednesday. “This is not a man that deserves this.” The president speaks from experience. At least 19 women have publicly accused him of sexual misconduct, from harassment to assault and rape. Their allegations are how he knows that women often don’t report sexual violence to the police, and why he views it as a barometer of innocence: None of his accusers ever did.