When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) strode out of the White House in December after once again dashing President Trump's hopes of a border wall, it was easy to feel like the bully-in-chief had finally met his match. Her sunglasses were turned down just so, and her burnt red designer coat glowed in the midday sun. She looked powerful. Strong. And then, she hit Trump where it hurts, saying the wall was "a manhood thing with him — as if manhood can be associated with him."
But six months later, we're seeing just how little Pelosi is truly willing to stand up to Trump. Specifically, as yet another sexual assault accusation against Trump rises to the surface and then sinks quietly back into the depths, it's become apparent that Pelosi is not interested in holding the president accountable for his alleged transgressions. It seems the most powerful woman in American politics has abandoned the nation's many survivors of sexual assault.
Recently, writer E. Jean Carroll shared publicly for the first time that Trump had allegedly sexually assaulted her in a New York City department store dressing room in the early '90s. Since then, two friends have corroborated her story. She's now the 24th woman to accuse Trump of sexual misconduct. Yet somehow it seems that the longer this horrifying list grows, the less interested House Democrats are in taking action. And Pelosi's apathy in this instance is perhaps the most damning of all.
Just last week, Pelosi said in her weekly press conference, "I don't know what Congress' role is" in investigating Carroll's claims. She continued, "I don't know the person making the accusation; I haven't paid that much attention to it. I'm more concerned about policy decisions that we have disagreements on that we have to come to agreement on, that affect the lives of the American people. I appreciate this getting more publicity. Again, I just am not following that closely."
Let's start at the end of this statement and work our way back: By admitting she is not following along closely with allegations of sexual assault against the president of the United States, Pelosi telegraphs that she doesn't particularly care about this specific allegation — or allegations of sexual assault survivors in general. She recognizes the publicity it's gotten (which, by the way, has been paltry), but doesn't recognize that publicity without action becomes old news as soon as Trump yells at a female athlete or escalates a foreign conflict — in other words, nearly immediately.
Carroll's story may not have a direct affect on policy, but it's foolish to suggest it doesn't affect the lives of the American people. Every 92 seconds, another American is sexually assaulted, and one out of every six American women has been the victim of rape, or attempted rape, in her lifetime, according to The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. How are these millions of survivors of sexual assault supposed to feel when a man accused of the same crime — 24 times over! — is given license to continue going about his business by the most powerful woman in our federal government?
Certainly Republicans won't do anything at all to rein in their leader. Indeed, his sexual impropriety is part and parcel of what his party reveres about him: He doesn't ask for what he wants. He just takes it. His party barely yawns at the idea of Trump shoving a woman against a wall, forcibly kissing her, and digitally and genitally penetrating her without her permission, and at this point would be more likely to come out in support of climate change action than say an admonishing word against their leader.
Strangely, Pelosi's stance on Trump's victims has changed over the duration of his first term. In the wake of the #MeToo movement's explosion, when many powerful men were exposed as sexual predators, Pelosi pinned this domino effect on one particular event during an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press: "Harvey [Weinstein] didn't evoke this," she said. "The election of President Trump evoked what happened to Harvey and now everybody is served notice."
The following month, Pelosi expressed support for a congressional investigation into the sexual misconduct allegations against Trump. At the time, there were 19 accusations against him, ranging from groping to rape. "I think there's a course of action here," she said. "The committee should allow the investigation to go forward. The court should allow the case to go forward."
But of late, Pelosi seems bent on abdicating her role as Trump's foil altogether. During a CNN interview earlier this month, she said: "I don't even want to talk about him. My stock goes up every time he attacks me, so what can I say, but let's not spend too much time on that because that's his victory, the diverter-in-chief, the diverter-of-attention-in-chief."
But now who's doing the diverting? By passing the buck to Republicans and saying her party has bigger fish to fry, Pelosi has become part of a longstanding tradition of ignoring allegations of sexual assault by powerful men in service of a supposed greater good. She is reinforcing a culture of silence, where in place of belief and understanding, survivors are met with shame and blame.
While Pelosi is in the unenviable position of being a target of Trump's ire, she has something that so many women crave, but very few possess: power. Making a conscious decision not to use that power reveals not just her intense privilege, but the stark difference between changing the future and maintaining the status quo.
When Trump appointed Brett Kavanaugh as the newest Supreme Court justice, Pelosi said at the time that Trump was "appointing somebody like him": an alleged sexual abuser. But if Pelosi is going to make a habit of dismissing credible threats of sexual assault, men like Trump and Kavanaugh won't just be protected. They'll strike again.