With the possibility of impeachment and questions about obstruction of justice lingering in the air, many observers drew ready parallels between today’s congressional testimony from James Comey to that of John Dean during the Watergate hearings. But as Comey spoke, the shape of the former FBI director's narrative brought an entirely different moment in American political history to my mind: not John Dean’s appearance before Congress, but Anita Hill’s.
To be completely honest, I didn’t just think of Hill’s experience, either. I thought of mine. Indeed, anyone who has been the target of sexual harassment or sexual abuse would have trouble not hearing echoes of their own story in what Comey had to say about the president. When I noted on Twitter that Trump’s behavior with Comey sounded a lot like that of a sexual predator, my timeline exploded with grim confirmation. And I wasn’t the only one making that connection.
Comey said Trump lured him to the White House in January by implying there would be a dinner party. But it turned out it was just the two of them “at a small oval table in the middle of the Green Room.” (I’m sort of surprised their legs didn’t touch.) During that dinner Trump made vague but ominous demands, implying that Comey’s job was on the line if he didn’t comply. Just replace “loyalty” in this request with the other thing that Trump thinks people owe him because he’s a star:
A few moments later, the president said, “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence. The conversation then moved on, but he returned to the subject near the end of our dinner.
Comey added that Trump later made excuses to be alone with him. The president went out of his way to let Comey know he was being watched, under the thin excuse of calling “just to tell me I was doing an awesome job.” Trump was persistent and intentionally obtuse in his requests, cloaking his predation in false familiarity and phrases that could be taken as jokes or as threats (“Because I have been very loyal to you,” Trump allegedly told Comey, “very loyal; we had that thing you know.”)
Comey’s responses to this campaign of harassment were disturbingly familiar as well: In order to keep his job and not make the situation even more awkward, Comey let Trump think he was getting his way. “It is possible we understood the phrase 'honest loyalty' differently, but I decided it wouldn’t be productive to push it further,” Comey testified in his written statement, even though, as he added today, what “[my] common sense told me is he’s looking to get something for granting my request for staying in the job.”
Comey even suffered what sounds like a mild version of a middle-of-the-night panic that survivors grind their way through, although — in an important departure from the analogy — his late-night revelation was ultimately hopeful, as he believed that if Trump actually did tape their encounter, the evidence would vindicate him. Many survivors don’t even dare hold out such hope.
Indeed, Comey’s stern confidence in his version of events is where his story and, all too often, the experience of assault and harassment survivors sadly differ. This is not to say that Trump didn’t go to the same playbook as a harasser would after his target had escaped and was poised to tell that side of the story: Comey’s a “nutjob,” remember? A “showboater.” He might as well have asked what he was wearing, too.
Senate questioners on both sides of the aisle gave even more weight to the notion that all abuses of power look alike in the dark, and that it is the target’s responsibility to make a harasser behave. Dianne Feinstein wondered, “You’re big, you’re strong… Why didn’t you stop him?” Marco Rubio wondered, basically, “If it was so bad, why didn’t you say something then?”:
At the time did you say anything to the president about, that is not an appropriate request, or did you tell the White House counsel that is not an appropriate request, someone needs to go tell the president that he can't do these things?
Speaker Paul Ryan quickly responded to the hearing with a boys-will-be-boys defense, noting that Trump is “unfamiliar with protocol” and “new to this.” Yesterday, Chris Christie spun us with a version of “locker room talk,” calling Comey's experiences with Trump “normal New York City conversation.”
Some might be uncomfortable emphasizing the parallel between Trump’s behavior with a powerful man like Comey and past allegations of his sexual mistreatment of women. There are of course important differences between the two scenarios — perhaps most notably in how little doubt Comey seems to have about himself. While, like many survivors before him, Comey did seem to feel some guilt about his interactions with the president and acknowledged that maybe he should have done more to stop or change them, that he had any guilt at all speaks to the grossness of Trump’s infraction, the force of the influence that Trump wielded as a weapon.
There is always something obscene about the abuse of power, even if it isn’t sexual. Authoritarians count on their subjects to internalize this obscenity and feel reluctant to comment on it. We sometimes giggle about the violations when we should be shouting. It was easy to joke about similarities before the details emerged: Headlines such as “Comey asked Sessions not to leave him alone with Trump” practically begged for a lighthearted “Same. —Women” response.
But the richness of Comey’s specific recollections should force us to grapple with the dark reality before us: We elected a sexual predator to the highest office in the land, and he is continuing to act like one.