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Someone accused the US president of rape. The media shrugged

Why the relative quiet around E Jean Carroll’s allegation? Is it sexism? Outrage fatigue? Journalistic cowardice? All of the above?

Arwa Mahdawi

Donald Trump once boasted he could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone without losing any votes. While this thesis hasn’t been tested – yet – I suspect he’s probably right. Just look at the muted reaction to the allegations the president once sexually assaulted a woman on Fifth Avenue. Just look at the depressing and predictable way the E Jean Carroll story is fizzling out.

On Friday, New York magazine published an excerpt from Carroll’s forthcoming book in which the writer recalls encountering Trump in Bergdorf Goodman, a Manhattan department store, in the mid-1990s. Carroll alleges that Trump violently forced himself upon her in a dressing room after asking for advice on a present he was getting for a female friend. “I have never had sex with anybody ever again,” she wrote.

There was a time when an allegation that the president of the United States raped someone in a department store would have been the only thing everyone was talking about. But Carroll’s story was received by many media outlets with a series of tired shrugs. It didn’t even make the front page of Saturday’s New York Times, Wall Street Journal, LA Times or Chicago Tribune. Worse, the Times seemingly didn’t even consider it “news” – it put the story in its book section.

Why the relative quiet around such a big story? Is the media afraid of the president? Is it afraid of losing access or incurring Trump’s wrath? Absolutely not, says Dean Baquet, the New York Times’ executive editor. On Monday Baquet addressed criticism that the Times hadn’t adequately covered the story by stating the paper could not find independent sources to verify Carroll’s account. “We were overly cautious,” Baquet said. Funny how some stories seem to demand an overabundance of caution and others don’t.

To be fair, it wasn’t just media outlets that reacted to Carroll’s accusations with subdued shrugs. When I first read the New York magazine I was shocked at how little I was shocked by it. The news is exhausting and I’m sure many of us suffer from outrage fatigue. America is locking kids in filthy cages, and private companies are profiting from it. The world is hurtling towards a climate catastrophe, and the Trump administration is looking the other way. Every day seems to bring some new nightmare; it is inevitable we become numbed to it.

And then, of course, you’ve got the fact that Carroll is the 22nd woman to publicly accuse Trump of sexual misconduct. And the fact that Trump has publicly boasted about grabbing women without their consent. And the fact that his ex-wife, Ivana Trump, accused him of rape. (She later said she did not mean it in “a literal or criminal sense”.) And the fact that every time he is accused of sexual misconduct, Trump brushes off the accusations in exactly the same way. He accuses the women of lying; he accuses them of being motivated by fame; and he threatens them.

Trump ran through this tried and tested response on Friday in a statement smearing Carroll and stating that: “If anyone has information that the Democratic Party is working with Ms Carroll or New York Magazine, please notify us as soon as possible. The world should know what’s really going on. It is a disgrace and people should pay dearly for such false accusations.” In other words, the president of the United States threatened a private citizen.

On Monday, Trump further denied the allegations, telling the Hill that Carroll wasn’t his “type”. Because men obviously only sexually assault women who are their type. Trump has used this “she’s not attractive enough to be raped” defense before; it’s one of his favourites. “Believe me, she would not be my first choice,” Trump said in 2016, after Jessica Leeds accused him of groping her on a plane in the 1980s. And after the People magazine journalist Natasha Stoynoff claimed that Trump sexually assaulted her during an interview his response was: “Look at her … I don’t think so.”

In an interview with CNN on Monday, Carroll reacted to Trump’s denials by calling out how predictable his response was. “He denies it, he turns it around, he attacks, and he threatens,” Carroll said. “And then everybody forgets it, and the next woman comes along … I am sick of it.”

I’m sick of it too. Yet this cycle doesn’t look like it’s going to stop. By next week I doubt many of us will still be talking about Carroll. And then, one imagines, another accuser will come along and this whole story will play out again.

Or perhaps another accuser won’t come along. Perhaps women are hearing Trump’s message loud and clear: don’t bother speaking up about sexual assault, especially if it was by a powerful man, because nothing will happen. Your character will be assassinated, you will be threatened, and the man will paint himself as the victim. Perhaps women are looking around at Trump and Brett Kavanaugh and Louis CK and all the powerful men who have brushed off misconduct claims like they’re parking tickets, and thinking, “Why bother saying anything, when nobody is going to believe me anyway?” Which, of course, is exactly what predators like Trump want.

“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump famously said. “You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” The “they” Trump was talking about in that statement wasn’t the women themselves; it was the apparatus of power silencing them. It was the criminal justice system that gives wealthy men the benefit of the doubt. It was the pundits who suggest “maybe she was asking for it”. It was the newspapers that treat sexual assault allegations with a level of caution they rarely seem to apply to other cases. It was the politicians who thinkpolitical pragmatism is more important than impeaching the president when he proves himself unfit for office – time and time and time again.

  • Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist

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