President Trump’s decision to mock Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) for groping a sleeping woman while posing for a photo has once again made him a central figure in the national discussion about sexual assault, harassment and misconduct — and has again brought attention to past accusations against the president himself.
As a growing number of prominent men have publicly faced accusations, Trump has been selective in responding, largely on the basis of whether the accused is an ally or foe and focusing relatively little on the alleged victims.
Trump called his own accusers “horrible, horrible liars” and threatened to sue them, while coming to the defense of friends such as political commentator Bill O’Reilly and former Fox News chief executive Roger Ailes, accused of harassment or assault. Trump has also been mostly silent on Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama, who has been accused of initiating a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl when he was in his 30s, sexually assaulting a 16-year-old waitress and pursuing relationships with at least five other teenagers who were much younger than he.
Trump’s responses have been notably different for some Democrats. Late Thursday night, the president tweeted about Franken, saying that a photograph of Franken appearing to grope a woman “is really bad, speaks a thousand words” and chastising the Minnesotan for “lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women.” Trump has also said he was not surprised by accusations against film producer Harvey Weinstein, a major Democratic donor; released an ad during the presidential campaign calling former New York congressman Anthony Weiner a “pervert;” and hosted a campaign news conference with three women who had accused former president Bill Clinton of sexual assault or misconduct, calling those women “very courageous.”
Liz Mair, a Republican communications consultant who has been critical of the president, said Friday that Trump appears to be trying to egg on Democrats to react and, in the process, muddy distinctions between allegations against him and others accused of wrongdoing.
“Even if he’s totally loathed, as long as he’s a little less loathed by comparison, he’s good” with that, Mair said.
But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Friday pushed back against the idea that Trump treats Democrats differently from Republicans, pointing to Trump’s comments of concern over the Moore allegations. Sanders also said that there was a key difference between the accusations against Franken and those against Trump.
“Senator Franken has admitted wrongdoing, and the president hasn’t,” Sanders said. “I think that’s a very clear distinction.”
Last week, The Washington Post published allegations that Moore initiated a sexual encounter with a 14-year-old girl nearly four decades ago when he was in his early 30s and that he pursued three other girls around the same time who were between the ages of 16 and 18. On Monday, another woman held a news conference in New York to accuse Moore of sexually assaulting her in the late 1970s when she was 16 and he was in his 30s. And on Wednesday, The Post published the accounts of two additional women who say that Moore pursued them in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he was in his 30s and they were teenagers who worked at a mall. One of those women said that she went to a movie with Moore and that he aggressively kissed her without her permission.
During Trump’s trip to Asia last week, Sanders told reporters that “like most Americans, the president does not believe we can allow a mere allegation, in this case one from many years ago, to destroy a person’s life. However, the president also believes that if these allegations are true, Judge Moore will do the right thing and step aside.” On Saturday, Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that he was sticking with that same statement “for now, but I’ll have further comment as we go down the road” after the trip.
Since returning late Tuesday, Trump has not mentioned Moore in any public comments or tweets, and he has ignored questions about Moore that reporters have shouted at him. Sanders said Thursday that Trump considers the allegations against Moore “extremely troubling” but does not plan to rescind his endorsement and thinks that Alabama voters should be the ones to pick their next senator.
The news about Franken broke Thursday morning when radio news anchor Leeann Tweeden, a former model who participated in USO shows in war zones, published an essay accusing the Democrat of aggressively kissing her without her permission and shared a photo that showed Franken appearing to grope her as she slept on a plane wearing a bulletproof vest.
Late Thursday night, Trump jumped into the fray. “The Al Frankenstien picture is really bad, speaks a thousand words. Where do his hands go in pictures 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6 while she sleeps?” he wrote on Twitter, misspelling the nickname. “And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women. Lesley Stahl tape?”
The latter remark appeared to be a reference to a 1995 New York magazine article in which Franken, then a writer on “Saturday Night Live,” is described as advocating a joke about raping Stahl, a prominent CBS journalist.
Trump did not mention that Tweeden also accused Franken of kissing her against her will — the same thing that at least eight women have publicly accused Trump of doing. The accusations against Trump span from the early 1990s, when beauty pageant organizer Jill Harth alleged in a lawsuit that Trump had repeatedly kissed and groped her against her will, to November 2015, when NBC News reporter Katy Tur says that Trump gave her an unwelcome kiss on the cheek and then bragged about it on air.
Two of those women, along with at least four others, have accused Trump of groping their breasts or touching their genitals without their consent. Jessica Leeds alleges that as she sat next to Trump on a flight in the early 1980s, he touched her breasts and started putting his hand up her skirt.
Trump repeatedly denied the allegations during the campaign, calling his accusers liars and vowing to sue them, which he has not done. And referring to Leeds in October 2016, Trump said: “Believe me, she would not be my first choice. That I can tell you.”
Several beauty pageant contestants also accused Trump of barging into their dressing rooms unexpectedly and seeing them when they were not fully dressed — something that Trump admitted to doing during a 2005 interview with shock jock Howard Stern.
In early October 2016, The Post published audio from an interview Trump did with “Access Hollywood” in 2005 in which he bragged about kissing women without waiting to see whether they wanted to be kissed and grabbing women by their genitals without asking permission. “And when you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said. “You can do anything.”
Trump has defended those comments as being “locker room banter,” although he also issued an apology in which he said the “words don’t reflect who I am.”
At the time, Franken criticized Trump for the remarks: “I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms. I belong to a health club in Minneapolis — you can tell. Our locker room banter is stuff like, ‘Is Trump crazy?’ ”
In Alabama on Friday, Moore’s opponent — Alabama Democratic Senate nominee Doug Jones — said the accusations against Franken are a “serious matter” and that he supports an ethics investigation. He declined to comment on whether the president should more forcefully address the allegations against Moore.
“You just ought to ask the president and his people that, not me,” Jones said at a campaign stop at a seafood restaurant in Dothan, Ala.
Robins Carothers, a Jones supporter who was at the event, said Trump was being “hypocritical” in his attack on Franken and relative silence on Moore.
“He’s not the one to be calling Al Franken out on anything,” said Carothers, 56, who works in the cattle industry, “in my opinion.”
Sean Sullivan in Dothan, Ala., and Herman Wong and Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.