At least 20 women say Donald Trump has sexually harassed or abused them. While the harrowing details of each story may differ, remarkable consistencies emerge as well. A number of women describe how Trump violated them by forcing them into unwanted kisses and groping their most intimate parts. Those statements seem to align perfectly with Trump’s own videotaped confession that he “just start[s] kissing” women or grabbing them “by the pussy” as he pleases. “It’s like a magnet,” Trump said in the footage. “Just kiss. I don’t even wait [for consent]....You can do anything.”
Reports of Trump’s sexual attacks on women date back at least three decades. According to former businesswoman Jessica Leeds, in 1979 she was seated next to Trump in the first-class cabin of a flight, when without a word, he began groping and kissing her. Leeds’ detailed account of her experience seems to reconfirm Trump’s own 2005 description of his sexually predatory behavior toward women.
“They served the meal. And after it was cleared, he jumped all over me and started groping me and kissing me,” Leeds told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! “And at the time, I remember thinking, ‘Why doesn’t the guy across from the aisle come to my aid? Why doesn’t the stewardess come back?’….And [he] started grasping me and pulling me and groping my breasts and trying to kiss me. But it’s when he started to put his hand up my skirt that I managed to wiggle out, because I’m not a small person. And I also managed to remember my purse and went to the back of the airplane. And that was the rest of the flight.”
Leeds goes on to describe sitting in the coach section until all other passengers had deplaned, out of fear of encountering Trump again. Like the vast majority of women who experience sexual abuse and harassment, she didn’t tell any authority figures about what had happened, figuring her allegations would be ignored or disbelieved or would damage her own career and reputation.
“I did not complain to the airlines. I did not complain to my boss,” Leeds told Goodman. “That wasn’t—that was not done. There were all sorts of silly things that would happen on airplanes, like guys [saying] ‘You want to join the mile-high club?’ I mean, you know, these were things that, at that time, we tolerated.”
The experience was life-changing for Leeds. She said she “stopped wearing skirts” aboard flights, instead donning pantsuits, and she cropped her hair shorter in an effort to avoid male attention.
Leeds had internalized society’s belief that women are responsible for being sexually assaulted.
“You, as the victim, take on the responsibilities to, somehow or another, prevent these situations from happening,” she noted, pointing to how the mental wounds of sexual assault stay with survivors. “Women remember, in exquisite detail, when it happened, how it happened, where it happened, how they got out of it, how they got home. Most of them talked about throwing their clothes away. Most of them said that they felt responsible for what happened, and they didn’t want to tell anybody, even their parents or their spouses or everything. They remember it, whether they were eight years old or whether they were 30 years old. The problem is, the men that perpetrate this, for them, it’s like scratching an itch. It doesn’t mean anything. And they just don’t comprehend the psychological damage that they’re doing to their victims.”
A couple of years after the incident on the plane, Leeds was at a gala in New York City when she again crossed paths with Donald Trump, this time in the company of his “very pregnant” then-wife Ivana. Trump used the opportunity to insult and humiliate Leeds, who was new at her job and nervous about getting it right with the society-filled party crowd.
“‘I remember you. You’re that’—and he used the C-word—’from the airplane,’” Leeds said. “And it was like—it had been a crowded scene around the table. But it was like, all of a sudden, everybody just sort of disappeared. And it’s not that I felt threatened, but I felt very much alone....And he went on.”
Leeds told no one about her experience until she realized Trump had a real shot at the U.S. presidency. In particular, Leeds says she was appalled to hear Trump lie about his history of sexual assault when questioned by Anderson Cooper during the second presidential debate, just days after the release of the "Access Hollywood" tape. During the event, Trump attempted to pivot to the Islamic State and then tried to qualify his videotaped boasts about sexual abuse as “locker room” talk. The scene infuriated Leeds, who says she tossed and turned that night in bed.
“And then I got up in the morning, and I picked up my newspaper, and I thought, ‘I know what I’ll do: I’ll write a letter to the editor.’ And I opened up my computer, and my email was flying out the wall. It just was incredible, all my friends saying, ‘You’ve got to say something now. You’ve got to say something,’” Leeds said. “So, I composed this letter to the editor. I sent it off to the New York Times, went swimming, came back a couple of hours later, and there was a message from the Times. Would I please call them? And I did. And this woman reporter, Megan Twohey, questioned me. I mean, we talked for over an hour. And then she said, ‘Can I send a reporter?’ This for a letter to the editor?”
The Times gave coverage to Leeds in an article and created a short documentary in which she recounted her story. Though she received hate mail and abuse from Trump supporters around the country (enough that her kids suggested she leave Manhattan for a few days) she saw firsthand how coming forward had a ripple effect that touched the lives of women she had never met.
“I went out to a small town in Pennsylvania. And the next day, we go to the post office, and the women in the post office come up to me, and they say, ‘Thank you.' And 'you’re so brave.’ We go to the bank. The tellers at the bank, the customers in the bank come out and say, 'Thank you. And 'you’re so brave’...I come back to the city. I go to the Y for swimming and for exercise. And the women started coming up to me, but they also said, 'I have a story.' So I began to hear all these stories, some of them really horrific, some of them very minor. 'This guy in my office came in, and he [twisting gesture] my breasts.' It’s like, holy [bleep]! He did what?"
Trump’s response to allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by at least 13 women, including Jessica Leeds, was to suggest that his accusers weren’t attractive enough to warrant his attention. (“Believe me, she would not be my first choice,” Trump said of Leeds in a 2016 rally speech.) Roughly a month after Leeds came forward, despite Trump's ever-growing list of accusers and a lengthy catalog of crude, inappropriate and sexist statements, as well as a campaign rooted in racism and xenophobia, the candidate became the 45th president of the U.S. Leeds says the election results were “extremely disappointing.”
In the year since he ascended to the presidency, Trump’s administration has been filled with chaos, corruption and scandal, a consequence of 63 million people voting for a man with no interest in policy that does not bolster his net worth. But in that same period, there has been a cultural shift on the issue of sexual harassment, and perhaps the faintest hint of an emerging national reckoning around the treatment of women. The #MeToo campaign started by African-American activist Tarana Burke nearly a decade ago has been mainstreamed, bringing widespread acknowledgement of sexual attacks against (so far) mostly high-profile white women. Democratic politicians such as Al Franken and John Conyers have announced plans to leave office on the heels of sexual harassment charges. Trump, however, remains in the highest political office in the country, even as accusations of abuse continue to trickle in and sexist attacks still pour out of the White House.
Leeds is one of three women who recently began publicly demanding a congressional investigation into charges of sexual misconduct against the president. “The problem with the political scene is the fact that Trump really feels like he doesn’t have anybody over him….Nobody is the boss of the White House except Trump,” Leeds told Democracy Now! “It’s up to Congress to haul—to bring him to task for who he is and what he is. I’m hoping the Mueller investigation will do it, but at this point I have to continue doing what I feel is important about the sexual aggression issues. So, I think it’s up to Congress to step forward.”
Sixteen of Trump’s accusers were featured in a recent documentary from Brave New Films. (The video is below.) At last tally, 100 congressmembers, along strict partisan lines, had lent their voice to the calls for an investigation.
“As a society, we are finally beginning to hold powerful men to account for abusing their positions and influence to harass and abuse women,” Brave New Films founder Robert Greenwald wrote in a statement. “But this movement for accountability will ring hollow if it doesn't apply to the most powerful and public sexual harasser in America—the president. In the post-Harvey Weinstein (or Roy Moore, Louis C.K., etc.) world we live in, we cannot ignore 16 women who over the course of decades in a broad range of situations encountered the same pattern of manipulation, misogyny, harassment and abuse. We owe it to these women, and to all women, to hold President Trump to account.”