Two autumns ago as another election day neared, Donald Trump, then a Republican presidential nominee trailing in most polls, responded to accusations that he had sexually harassed a number of women by mocking one's appearance: “She would not be my first choice." All of them, he said, were “liars.”
On Tuesday night in Mississippi, with the midterm elections five weeks away, Trump stood before supporters at a campaign rally and mocked Christine Blasey Ford, one of three women who have accused his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, of sexual misconduct.
As the president riffed off Ford's testimony to the Senate last week — and off her inability to recall certain details before and after the alleged attack 36 years ago — Trump's audience responded with laughter and applause.
For a politician whose coarseness has proven to be as much a selling point as a liability — he has openly mocked a former prisoner of war, a Gold Star family and a disabled journalist, with little penalty — the comments were not out of character. But for Trump and a Republican Party already facing a possible shellacking in the midterm election, his remarks may prove poorly timed, further animating female voters already ginned up to deliver a rebuke in November.
The rally came just hours after Trump, while leaving the White House, offered his inverted view of the #MeToo phenomenon, telling reporters that women coming forward with assault allegations have made it “a very scary time for young men in America.” A day earlier, at a televised Rose Garden news conference, he’d shocked many when he snapped at two female reporters, telling one, “You’re not thinking. You never do.”
Even before election day, Trump’s behavior could carry a cost: His rally remarks were condemned by several senators who were undecided about voting to confirm Kavanaugh to the nation’s highest court — a vote too close to predict.
"This issue is so personal and so visceral. When he gets a rally full of people mocking a sexual assault survivor, every woman in America who's had to deal with that feels like he is mocking us," said Amanda Litman, a former Hillary Clinton campaign aide who runs an organization to help people without political experience run for office.
Her group, Run For Something, which launched on Trump’s Inauguration Day, has assisted in placing more than 400 first-time candidates — mostly women and people of color — on state and local ballots. Last weekend, after Ford and Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, volunteer sign-ups increased to 20 times the normal level, Litman said.
"I don't think Republicans realize how that broad humiliation and embarrassment can fuel action,” she said.
Yet Trump — having won election weeks after the disclosure of his boasting of sexual assault on the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape, and after insulting his many accusers — doesn’t see a big electoral risk now. Indeed, he and some Republicans see the potential to galvanize their own voters with his male-centered strategy.
Despite the cultural reckoning of a #MeToo movement that is in part a reaction to him, the president has persisted as an avatar for a counter-movement of aggrieved white men. Trump has repeatedly described Kavanaugh as the victim, of uncorroborated allegations and a smear campaign engineered by Democrats. And after initially making sympathetic comments about Ford, even calling her “a very credible witness,” he has reversed himself to the point of Tuesday night’s mockery.
Rather than recognizing the reality of how many women are victims of sexual assaults, and why so many decline to report them, Trump this week has expressed concern only for young men who, in his view, could see their reputations falsely besmirched.
At the rally, he offered a critique of the broader #MeToo movement, in remarks directed squarely at women who typically lean Republican — mostly white, married and without college degrees.
“Think of your son!” Trump said. “Think of your husband!”
At the White House on Wednesday, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the president.
"It seemed to me that he was stating facts that Dr. Ford laid out in her testimony,” Sanders said, referring to Ford’s acknowledged memory lapses.
Yet Trump mischaracterized much of Ford’s testimony, claiming in his send-up of her before thousands of supporters that she said she could recall nothing besides having one beer. Actually, she has described in detail a drunken, 17-year-old Kavanaugh attempting to rape her in an upstairs bedroom, her feared of suffocation when he stifled her cries, and the “uproarious laughter” between him and an alleged witness, Kavanaugh classmate Mark Judge.
Asked whether Trump still believes Ford was credible, Sanders said only, “The president believes Judge Kavanaugh should be confirmed.”
Most Republican senators avoided commenting on Trump's rally remarks. “I haven't seen that; thanks,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, ducking into the Senate. Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, echoing others, told reporters, “I don't have any comment.”
Significantly, however, the three Republicans considered to be swing votes — Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — slammed Trump’s mockery of Ford.
On Tuesday, to pressure the three, an anti-Kavanaugh group began running digital ads using the president’s words in their states.
Murkowski called Trump’s rally performance “wholly inappropriate and in my view unacceptable.” She said she was “taking everything into account” in considering her vote.
Jennifer Palmieri, who served as communications director on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and has since written a book about how gender politics affected the election, called Trump’s comments “grossly unfair to most men in America, to assume that most men feel threatened by women coming forward with their accounts of being sexually assaulted.”
According to statistics compiled in 2012 by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 63% of assaults do not get reported, while just 2% to 10% of those reported are deemed false.
“We were overdue for a moment where women came forward and shared more stories of sexual assault, and it's just really tragic that the moment when that happens, the president is someone who has a political strategy that tries to pit men and women against each other,” Palmieri said in an interview.
While energizing their base could help Republicans hold their Senate majority, it’s a strategy that may further jeopardize the party’s House majority, given the number of swing districts — especially in urban and suburban areas where women are most alienated by Trump.
Even before Ford’s allegation emerged, polls showed that Democrats had increased their advantage with suburban women. A national USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll released last week reported that Democrats had even significantly narrowed Republicans’ edge with blue-collar white women.
According to a new Gallup survey, the divide over Kavanaugh is more stark by party than gender. While 84% of Republicans polled said they wanted the judge confirmed, 78% of Democrats opposed him. The partisan gap is the largest Gallup has ever measured in public support for a Supreme Court nominee. In an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released Wednesday, more Americans said they believed Ford's allegation over Kavanaugh's denials, 45% to 33%.
“Like so many events today, people view this through their partisan filters to reinforce what they already think,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “The main difference we’ve seen since the Kavanaugh hearings is an increase in Republican enthusiasm. It doesn't quite match the sky-high Democratic enthusiasm, but they have helped to close the gap in intensity.”
In the Denver suburbs, Rep. Mike Coffman, a Republican who has survived several tough reelection fights, is facing an army of women activists working to oust him.
Jessica Zender, a mother drawn into politics after 2016, is one of them. She’s heading a new group, Indivisible Denver, of women who similarly became active to oppose Trump. In her view, Trump’s closing message to men — and women — is a further spur to action.
“It makes me want to knock on more doors to get Democrats elected,” she said. Zender pointed not just to Trump’s comments about Ford but to his demeaning of female reporters at the news conference on Monday.
“Every day in this country, for a woman right now, you see your leaders telling you that you don't matter,” Zender said. “You are not a full human and your full humanity is not recognized. It's hurtful and it's enraging.”
Times staff writer Sarah D. Wire contributed to this report.