Democrats have criticized the Republican response to allegations of sexual misconduct by Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, but faced with their own scandals, they’ve resorted to a similar playbook.
Like Republicans, some Democrats have said they are unsure what to believe about credible allegations that were thoroughly reported, hesitated to call for lawmakers to resign and changed the subject to positive things the accused has also done.
On Sunday morning, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was pressed by NBC’s Chuck Todd on what a “zero tolerance” policy on sexual harassment meant for Democratic Rep. John Conyers, who was accused by a former staffer.
The California Democrat responded by saying that the system is “strengthened by due process” and that ultimately she believed Conyers would “do the right thing.” She then turned to praise him.
“John Conyers is an icon in our country,” Pelosi told Todd. “He has done a great deal to protect women — Violence Against Women Act, which the left — right-wing — is now quoting me as praising him for his work on that, and he did great work on that. But the fact is, as John reviews his case, which he knows, which I don’t, I believe he will do the right thing.”
Backlash to the statement was fierce online, with many arguing that Pelosi was letting Conyers off the hook for behavior that included showing up to a meeting in his underwear. But it was quickly overshadowed by Conyers’ announcement that he was temporarily stepping down from his position as ranking Democrat on the powerful House Judiciary Committee.
Even then, Conyers’ statement borrowed from the playbook that has been used by Republican politicians accused of sexual misconduct, attempting to cast doubt on the accusations against him by attacking the media.
“I deny these allegations, many of which were raised by documents reportedly paid for by a partisan alt-right blogger,” Conyers said in the statement. “I very much look forward to vindicating myself and my family before the House Committee on Ethics.”
It’s true that BuzzFeed originally acquired the documents from pro-Trump online activist Mike Cernovich that showed Conyers had settled a sexual harassment claim with $27,000 from a taxpayer-funded office budget. But the publication independently confirmed the documents’ authenticity, and well-known Washington attorney Melanie Sloan later told the Detroit Free-Press that Conyers once showed up to a meeting in his underwear and verbally abused her and criticized her appearance when she was on his staff.
Conyers has argued that the settlement did not amount to an admission of wrongdoing and maintained his innocence.
When the allegations first surfaced, Pelosi and other Democrats called for an ethics investigation. Only a few Democrats went further. On Wednesday, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York called for Conyers to step down from his post on the Judiciary committee, while Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York became the first in her party to call for Conyers to resign.
“Rep. John Conyers should resign. I’ve reviewed the allegations against him, and they’re as credible as they are repulsive,” Rice said in a statement. “Whether it happened 40 years ago or last week, settlement or no settlement, Democrat or Republican — harassment is harassment, assault is assault.”
Lawmakers’ response to accounts of sexual misconduct among their own has been much more muted than in similar cases in Hollywood, the media and corporate America. After Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual abuse by multiple women, he was fired from his own company and expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Veteran broadcaster Charlie Rose was fired by CBS and PBS the day after allegations he had sexually harassed employees for years surfaced and two journalism schools swiftly rescinded awards. The head of Uber was forced out in part over problems with sexual harassment and discrimination at the company.
Congress is moving to police itself better. The House of Representatives is expected to soon mandate that all members and staff undergo anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training. Rep. Jackie Speier and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York have also introduced bipartisan legislation to overhaul the Congressional Office of Compliance, which handles workplace complaints in the body.
But so far only a handful of lawmakers in either party have called for strong actions against their own.
A number of Republicans withdrew their endorsement from Moore or said he should step aside if allegations are true that he pursued relationships with teens when he was in his 30s, but only a handful said Alabamans should vote for someone else or called for the Senate to expel him if he’s elected. And after issuing statements denouncing Franken’s actions and calling for the Ethics committee to investigate Franken, Democratic lawmakers were content to leave it at that.
Even Pelosi seemed to realize her comments had missed the mark, clarifying them later in a statement released after Conyers said he would step down from the committee post.
“As a woman and mother of four daughters, I particularly take any accusation of sexual harassment very seriously,” the statement reads in part. “Any credible accusation should be reviewed by the Ethics Committee expeditiously. We are at a watershed moment on this issue, and no matter how great a person’s legacy, it is not a license for harassment. I commend the brave women coming forward.”