In retrospect, it seems somewhat strange that the rape allegation against Donald Trump was not discussed more during the campaign. After all, the facts as alleged are incredibly sickening and disturbing. According to journalist Harry Hurt III’s 1993 book The Lost Tycoon, in 1989 Trump became incredibly angry at his then-wife Ivana for recommending a doctor who botched Trump’s baldness-reduction operation. An enraged Trump, Hurt reports, punished Ivana by raping her:
Suddenly, according to Ivana, The Donald storms into the room. He is looking very angry, and he is cursing out loud. “Your fucking doctor has ruined me!” he screams. The Donald flings Ivana down onto the bed. Then he pins back her arms and grabs her by the hair. The part of her head he is grabbing corresponds to the spot on his head where the scalp reduction operation has been done. The Donald starts ripping out Ivana’s hair by the handful, as if he is trying to make her feel the same kind of pain he is feeling. Ivana starts crying and screaming. The entire bed is being covered with strands of her golden locks. But The Donald is not finished. He rips off her clothes and unzips his pants. Then he jams his penis inside her for the first time in more than sixteen months. Ivana is terrified. This is not lovemaking. This is not romantic sex. It is a violent assault. She later describes what The Donald is doing to her in no uncertain terms. According to the versions she repeats to some of her closest confidantes, “He raped me.” When The Donald finally pulls out, Ivana jumps up from the bed. Then she runs upstairs to her mother’s room. She locks the door and stays there crying for the rest of the night. The next morning Ivana musters up the courage to return to the master bedroom. The Donald is there waiting for her. He leaves no doubt that he knows exactly what he did to her the night before. As she looks in horror at the ripped-out hair scattered all over the bed, he glares at her and asks with menacing casualness: “Does it hurt?” (Ivana had confirmed that a rape had taken place in a sworn deposition during her divorce. Lawyers for both Trumps sought successfully to keep the divorce records sealed during the 2016 campaign.)
It is difficult to imagine any other candidate for whom this would not have been the leading story of the campaign. If Barack Obama had once been accused of doing this, God only knows the attention it would have received. Yet during 2015 and 2016, it didn’t really come up. Trump himself was reportedly nervous about the possibility of Megyn Kelly confronting him about it. But he needn’t have worried. Kelly would not mention the r-word.
In part, the press’s relative silence on the incident seems to have come from a concerted effort by Trump’s lawyers to terrify any outlet that sought to bring it up. When the Daily Beast prepared a story, Trump attorney Michael Cohen tried to bully the publication out of going to press, telling the Beast:
I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know… So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me? You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word ‘rape,’ and I’m going to mess your life up… for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet…
Cohen also denied that a rape had occurred. But the words used in his denial were curious:
You’re talking about the frontrunner for the GOP, presidential candidate, as well as a private individual who never raped anybody. And, of course, understand that by the very definition, you can’t rape your spouse… There’s very clear case law.
Thus when Trump’s lawyer insisted that Trump never raped Ivana, Cohen did not choose to deny the alleged facts. He did not insist that Trump had not torn Ivana’s hair out, or that he had not forced his penis into her against her will while she sobbed. Instead, Cohen simply denied that any such an act would legally constitute rape. (Incidentally, this is false. New York law at the time did indeed prohibit raping a spouse.) Cohen said that “[s]he was not referring to it [as] a criminal matter, and not in its literal sense, though there’s many literal senses to the word.” But Cohen’s defense was an attempt to redefine the word “rape” so as not to cover the alleged facts, instead of a denial of the facts.
Ivana’s own remarks on the topic had also been peculiar. In 2015, she denied the incident outright, saying that she and Donald were now “the best of friends.” But when Harry Hurt was preparing to release The Lost Tycoon, Ivana gave the following statement through a Trump lawyer:
During a deposition given by me in connection with my matrimonial case, I stated that my husband had raped me… [O]n one occasion during 1989, Mr. Trump and I had marital relations in which he behaved very differently toward me than he had during our marriage. As a woman, I felt violated, as the love and tenderness, which he normally exhibited towards me, was absent. I referred to this as a ‘rape,’ but I do not want my words to be interpreted in a literal or criminal sense.
Note that, like Cohen, Ivana didn’t explain which facts were wrong. Instead, she said she didn’t “want” the allegation to be interpreted in a “literal or criminal” sense. She does indicate that something happened, something very distinct from ordinary sexual relations, and that she felt afterwards as if she had been “violated.” So there was some kind of incident, but Ivana was silent on the question of whether Trump did, in fact, pull out her hair and force his penis into her against her will. Furthermore, assuming she shared the same misconception as Trump’s attorney, that what happened couldn’t be rape in the literal or criminal sense because spousal rape was legal, even her ostensible denial is consistent with all of the facts in Hurt’s reporting.
The alleged rape of Ivana was one part of an ongoing pattern of cruel behavior in Trump’s marriage. According to Ivana’s divorce documents, Trump “increasingly verbally abused and demeaned [her] so as to obtain her submission to his wishes and desires” as well as “humiliated and verbally assaulted” her. Trump demanded submission and subservience, saying that “when I come home and dinner’s not ready, I go through the roof.” Trump said in an interview that this was part of his philosophy, that while “psychologists” say women want to be “treated with respect,” Trump himself had “friends who treat their wives magnificently, and get treated like crap in return.” “Be rougher,” Trump told his friends, and “you’ll see a different relationship.” As a result, Ivana was apparently “terrified of her husband.” Donald belittled and berated Ivana with remarks like: “You’re showing too much cleavage” and “Who would touch those plastic breasts?”
And of course, Trump’s treatment of his wife fit with his usual pattern of behavior toward women. Trump has been overheard declaring that “you’ve got to treat [women] like shit,” and a trail of accusers can confirm that he means what he says. Nearly a dozen women have accused Trump of sexual assault, many describing a similar modus operandi: Trump simply begins grabbing them or kissing them against their will, forcing his tongue down their throats as they attempt to resist. The allegations are about as solid as you could hope for; People magazine reporter Natasha Stoynoff had six people confirm her story.
What’s more, Trump notoriously confessed on tape to doing exactly what his accusers had suggested he did: grabbing them “by the pussy” whenever he pleased, regardless of their feelings on the matter. As Trump said, his fame allowed him to do “anything” to women:
I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.
The women’s stories therefore line up perfectly with Trump’s own: they say he touches women without their consent, and gets away with it because of his fame and power. He says he touches women without their consent, and gets away with it because of his fame and power.
Trump also admitted to spying on nude underage girls against their will. Numerous former contestants in Trump’s beauty pageants had declared that Trump burst in on them in their changing rooms while they were undressed. Trump confirmed in an interview with Howard Stern that he did this on purpose in order to ogle the women.
Thus Trump’s assertion that when you’re famous “you can do anything” might have been the truest thing he said during the campaign. When you’re a famous man, you can do anything, and you can get away with it for decades. (Only if you decide to run for president might it become an issue, and even then for only a news cycle or two.)
We have case after case to prove this. Bill Cosby drugged and raped women over and over for 40 years, and it took until 2014 for anyone to pay the slightest bit of attention. In the U.K., children’s television host Jimmy Savile raped and abused a stunning 400 victims (at minimum) over the course of a long career in show business. Savile openly bragged in his memoirs about using his fame to persuade police officers not to pursue charges against him over incidents with underage girls. And yet it was not until after his death that Savile’s sex crimes were fully exposed. (The Savile affair led to a massive public prosecution effort against celebrity predators, with a number of famous U.K. entertainment personalities being charged for offenses they had gotten away with for years.) Savile’s wealth and connections made it easy for him to get away with being an abuser.
Or look at the careers of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly at FOX News. For decades, Ailes demanded sex from subordinates, threatening to destroy women’s careers unless they endured his penis (which was “red like raw hamburger.”) O’Reilly has been repeatedly accused of sexual harassment and been forced to settle lawsuits with employees, and his daughter told a psychiatrist that O’Reilly choked his wife and dragged her down the stairs. Yet Roger Ailes left FOX News with a $40 million retirement package. O’Reilly remained on primetime television for years despite multiple accusations, and continued to pump out bestselling books.
Or look at the case of billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein, friend to Trump and the Clintons alike. Epstein allegedly paid numerous underage girls to pleasure him sexually, and may have abused over 30 minors. Epstein’s victims’ families were outraged when Epstein received special treatment from the federal government, who entered into a non-prosecution agreement in exchange for a slap on the wrist 13-month sentence. (Donald Trump told New York magazine that Epstein was a “terrific guy,” and that he is “a lot of fun to be with,” adding that “it is even said that [Epstein] likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”)
There are endless other instances of famous men committing abuse with impunity. Woody Allen probably molested his daughter, and Amazon throws money at him to create a web series. Photographer Terry Richardson is a predator who uses his status to sexually coerce models, yet despite numerous detailed allegations he is still paid to shoot cover photographs for magazines like Harpers Bazaar and Rolling Stone. And of course there’s Bill Clinton. The list of famous male sleazes and sex criminals who suffer no consequences is seemingly endless, as the Daily Beast documents:
Mike Tyson is a convicted rapist, and he now stars as a loveable cartoon TV detective. Roman Polanski raped a 13-year-old and has since won an Oscar to a standing ovation. Sean Connery is the celebrated embodiment of rugged cool, who has openly championed beating women in order to keep ’em in line. Bill Murray has been accused by his ex-wife of repeated, brutal physical abuse. Rick James was arrested for torturing and sexually abusing a woman for three days straight, only to have his image rehabilitated by Dave Chappelle years later. John Lennon is one of the most worshipped artists who has ever drawn breath, and he has copped to battering the shit out of women.
There is no mystery behind any of this. Everyone knows that the wealthy and famous can get away with things that would land other people in prison. Trump even bragged about his predatory acts on tape. Yet this is the way wealth works: it confers a kind of total impunity, in which no amount of evidence is enough to make anything matter.
Some of that impunity comes from the ability to use money to buy people and lawyers to intimidate them. Trump’s ex-wives are bound by the terms of gag orders, and when Marla Maples promised to tell the world what she knew about Trump during his quasi-campaign in 2000, Trump’s lawyers instantly threatened her financially. Trump (like Cosby) threatened to sue his accusers, and with lawyers like Michael Cohen (“I’m going to mess your life up”), taking on men like Trump and Cosby can come at a serious risk to one’s personal reputation. Those who cross Trump frequently end up receiving death threats, and he has boasted about his love of revenge and of ruining the lives of those that anger him.
But this is not just a story about lawyers. It is also about complicity: the complicity of large institutions, and of the public at large, in refusing to hold these men accountable. In England, Savile’s behavior was well-known to high-level staffers at the BBC, who did nothing. At Fox News, when broadcaster Andrea Tantaros told executive Bill Shine that Roger Ailes had sexually harassed her, Shine replied that Ailes was a “very powerful man” and that Tantaros “needed to let this one go.” (When Ailes was publicly exposed, Shine was promoted to co-president of the news channel.) Cosby had numerous public accusers for years, but no media outlet gave the story the attention it deserved until comedian Hannibal Buress casually pointed out that Cosby was a rapist.
Likewise, the U.S. media paid very little attention to Trump’s sexual assault allegations until he himself was caught on tape admitting they were true, and the press never really covered the story of Trump’s alleged rape of Ivana. Now, with Trump elected and inaugurated, the alleged sex crimes have simply receded into the background, the news having moved on. (It is worth pointing out that the media have a strong incentive to cover Trump negatively without actually doing anything that would ruin him completely; multiple high-level television executives have acknowledged that Trump’s rise in politics has been an incredible ratings bonanza.)
One of the most exasperating features of our world is that powerful people do horrible things and are never punished for them. Trump’s political ascent is depressing proof of this: if you’re a famous man with a lot of money, you can abuse, harass, and threaten whomever you please, and nothing will happen to you. If you’re lucky, they might even make you President of the United States.
This article is partially adapted from the book Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity.