Politics

They Let Him Do It

All the President’s Women tries to tell about Trump’s sexual misconduct and ends up demonstrating how he got away with it.

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump arrives to speak at the McCormick Place convention center in Chicago on Monday.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

When former National Enquirer executive editor Barry Levine began writing a book about Donald Trump’s relationship to women, some speculated that he might share details about the tabloid’s long-standing protection and eventual endorsement of the president. According to reporting from the Wall Street Journal, “Tips about Mr. Trump poured into the tabloid after his television show ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ took off in 2002, but the Enquirer turned away stories that could paint him in a bad light.” At the time, Levine himself reportedly told employees that Enquirer publisher David Pecker would not stand for any negative coverage of his friend Trump. In Ronan Farrow’s new book, Catch and Kill, he writes that Levine kept in his office a safe full of sensitive material about Trump and women—allegations of affairs, payoffs, and assault, never to be published.

It’s impossible to tell whether All the President’s Women, the new book from Levine and co-author Monique El-Faizy, includes any of the stories allegedly kept in the safe. (The Enquirer’s parent company has contested Farrow’s reporting.) But broad swaths of the book read as if they were closely adapted from the tabloid’s pages, with all the coy phrasing, wealth worship, and casual misogyny the Enquirer and its peers have long used to simultaneously sensationalize and neutralize the bad behavior of powerful men. There are long chapters that recount Trump’s tumultuous relationships with his wives and girlfriends—their every known canoodle, falling-out, and prenup negotiation tactic reported in rubbernecking detail. Interspersed with those segments are dozens of stories of Trump’s alleged sexual harassment and assault, some of which are new, but most of which have been previously reported elsewhere. (Trump has denied all public allegations of sexual assault, and the White House did not respond to the authors’ requests for comment by the time the book went to print.)

Throughout the book, El-Faizy and Levine attempt to fuse those two strands of Trump’s sexual behavior, the consensual and the nonconsensual, into a unified theory of Trump and women. They determine that Trump favors two types of women: “exotic,” like Ivana and Melania, and “curvaceous and blonde,” like Marla Maples and “women he doesn’t plan to settle down with.” They search for clusters along the timeline of his alleged sexual assaults and propose possible explanations for them. While wavering on whether to ask Maples to marry him, El-Faizy writes, Trump “acted out his indecision with ferocity” by allegedly sexually assaulting Kristin Anderson and attempting to rape Jill Harth. The authors weave stories about Trump’s extramarital relationships with those of his alleged sex crimes so seamlessly, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish between the two, placed as they are on a single spectrum of “womanizing,” a term Levine uses as a catchall in his author’s note.

At best, this booklong conflation creates an unpleasant discontinuity of content and tone, with stories of violent assault sitting pages apart from passages that describe women in belittling, objectifying terms Trump and his friends in the tabloids would recognize. In the span of two sentences, Maples is dubbed both a “leggy blonde” and a “young flaxen-haired belle.” Girlfriends are “busty” and “stashed” away in resorts; a victim of Trump’s cruelty is a “Venezuelan beauty.” Levine even comes up with his own cutesy nickname for Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal: “the ‘hush-money’ mistresses.”

At worst, the way All the President’s Women intermixes Trump’s rich-guy philandering with his alleged assaults completely undermines its ability to do his accusers justice. The authors never say outright that Trump’s alleged sex crimes fall in the same category as his boorish-but-legal macho misbehavior, but it’s hard to follow their hairpin turns from titillating gossip-pages content to stories of alleged abuse that deeply traumatized several women without coming away with the sense that the line between the two is blurrier than it actually is. A full-color photo section takes up 16 pages in the middle of the book with images of Trump alongside various women, plus solo shots of some women he’s insulted, hit on, or dated—including, bafflingly, Candice Bergen, with whom he had one dinner in the 1960s. The collection of glitzy press shots happens to fall right in the middle of the book’s most intensive investigation and disturbing new allegation: a former Times Square brothel employee’s claim that Trump once paid to have sex with a teenager. Levine writes of conducting “dozens” of interviews with the man, scouring his boss’s FBI file, and working with two private investigators to try to find the adult porn star who was allegedly involved in a threesome. They never find her, but by the time readers learn that, the story’s momentum—and its horror—has already been diminished by Trump’s glamorous dating history.

That story is one of “43 new allegations of sexual misconduct” against Trump the book’s publisher, Hachette Books, has promised it contains. To get to this number, the authors used extremely broad definitions of “new,” “allegations,” and “sexual misconduct.” Some of the claims have been reported before, some are extremely vague, some come from second- or thirdhand sources, some are not explicitly nonconsensual, and some aren’t sexual at all. When I asked Levine what made a story count as “new,” he replied by email that the 43 allegations include claims that were previously made public but weren’t inventoried on “the lists compiled in 2016 by major news organizations.”

For example: One of the “new allegations” is Survivor winner Richard Hatch’s claim to People in 2016 that Trump made “sexual comments” about Marlee Matlin on the Celebrity Apprentice set. Another is Trump’s now-famous quip that he’d be dating one of a group of young girls “in 10 years.” Under the label “involving sexual contact,” the book lists NBC News correspondent Katy Tur’s account, from her 2017 book, of Trump giving her an unwanted kiss on the cheek. Surprising a woman with a kiss on the cheek in a work setting is certainly inappropriate, but to claim that it constitutes sexual contact, placing it in the same realm as E. Jean Carroll’s rape allegation, undercuts the work advocates have done to convince skeptics that assault accusations are worth taking seriously.

One allegation that’s genuinely new is a story from a “modeling industry source” who said Trump hooked up with a young model he’d met at a party; the source is sure it happened because the source “heard a couple of [models] discussing it the next day.” (The source doesn’t say if the model in question was a minor, but does say the models talking about it were between 16 and 18 years old.) Another new one: An anonymous journalist said Trump began “pawing” at her shoulder and behaved like a “slimy, oily, lecherous type of person” when they met in New York. Another: Model Ksenia Maximova said her agent once took her to a meeting at Trump Tower that seemed to be a veiled audition for dating Donald Trump Jr. I don’t doubt that any of these things happened, or that they add to an established pattern of Trump’s gross and sexist behavior. But without more details, it’s not clear that any of them involve “sexual misconduct.” I can already hear Trump’s defenders using them to paint the accusations against him as hearsay, exaggeration, and nothing worth complaining about at all.

Their inclusion in All the President’s Women’s widely trumpeted list of new allegations should not diminish the impact of the handful of truly new, undeniably appalling accusations in the book, such as Karen Johnson’s claim that Trump groped her genitals at a Mar-a-Lago party in the early 2000s, or the story of Trump busting in on a supermodel in bed at his Plaza Hotel to harass her after she’d turned him down. None of the alleged behavior described in the book is surprising, given what we already know about Trump, but my own lack of surprise renewed my sense of alarm at what America has learned to accept in a president. It’s profoundly disorienting to read a book that calmly assesses decades’ worth of known misogynist misbehavior and credibly alleged sex crimes, committed by a man who is currently president, and know that none of it will do him any damage. All the President’s Women might as well be a biography of a dead man for all the new reporting will affect Trump’s chances of reelection, given how much the electorate knew about him before November 2016.

In her introduction to the book, El-Faizy recognizes, and condemns, the numbing effect of Trump’s impunity. “When we as citizens stop being shocked, we normalize it, not just for Trump but for all men,” she writes of his alleged history of harassment and assault. El-Faizy is right, and perhaps for some readers, seeing every public and alleged instance of Trump’s sexism laid out in one place will be the jolt they need to reignite a healthy sense of outrage. But All the President’s Women also makes the case that a lot of Trump’s behavior is already normalized, which is how he’s gotten away with it for so long. The chapters on Trump’s involvement in the worlds of modeling and beauty pageants depict him as just one member of a whole community of wealthy men who use the industries as legitimizing fronts for sexual access to vulnerable young women and girls. (I came away from the book convinced that modeling agencies are, or at the very least used to be, barely concealed child-trafficking operations.) Just as Harvey Weinstein’s pattern of alleged abuse persisted in part because of broad cultural acceptance of the “casting couch” mode of deal-making, Trump’s persisted because a rich man who leers and grabs at beautiful teenagers is considered a red-blooded playboy, not a beyond-the-pale sexual predator.

That’s what makes All the President’s Women’s fixation on his psychological makeup and motives so perplexing. “Where did Trump’s sexist sense of male supremacy come from?” El-Faizy asks in the introduction, as if his chauvinistic worldview were startlingly atypical among men of his demographic and stature. Levine opens the book with an author’s note that finds him wandering around the Beverly Hills Hotel, where Trump allegedly assaulted Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos and had dates with Daniels and McDougal. Levine writes that he was there to “walk in Donald Trump’s footsteps and to contemplate why, again and again, he was willing to take such risks and to act with so little regard for women.”

The book’s fascination with Trump’s interiority extends to interviews with two psychoanalysts, who speculate about how Trump’s mother affected his views on women and why he’s able to mistreat women with no apparent guilt. (He sees them as “cardboard characters dressed up in beautiful bodies,” suggests Justin Frank, who’s written a book psychoanalyzing Trump from afar.) All the President’s Women also turns to subject-matter experts to explain why a man who hires women can still be sexist and why some wealthy men surround themselves with models, leading the authors to offer such trenchant bits of analysis as “there is reason to believe that Trump was after both physical encounters and the status boost” of dating models. At times, the authors almost frame Trump’s mistreatment of women as a kind of singular mythology worthy of an origin story. Every time the authors ruminated on why a rich white man in America might treat women as collectible and disposable objects, I wanted to scream. It’s not that deep!

For all its worthwhile reporting, All the President’s Women suffers for both its misleading promotional claims and the little attention it pays to the lives of Trump’s accusers before or after the alleged assaults they describe. This lends to unflattering comparisons with several other deeply reported recent books about alleged serial abusers, such as Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s She Said, and reveals the shortcomings of Levine’s sensibilities. In the afterword to All the President’s Women, a dispatch from Daniels’ “Make America Horny Again” tour, Levine writes that Trump’s illegal preelection payment to Daniels “defined Trump’s true character after decades of womanizing, misogyny, and the rest. Daniels’s scandal brought it all to a head, you could say—or in her own words, to ‘a huge mushroom head.’ ” Passages like this one, which starts by lumping a range of rape and assault allegations into “the rest” and ends with a joke about Trump’s penis, register as flippant at a time when mainstream news outlets are reporting on sexual assault with more sensitivity and moral clarity than ever. The tabloids protected and promoted Trump for decades. Their reporting standards are ill-suited to the task of holding him accountable now.

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