Editor’s Note: Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her at @jrpsaki. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
From Roy Moore to Harvey Weinstein to Al Franken to Blake Farenthold, the last year has felt like one long-running sex scandal. So why has President Donald Trump, a serial adulterer who bragged on tape about sexual assault, been largely unscathed so far, while many others have fallen?
First, it’s impossible to say whether Trump will survive all the storms about alleged payoffs to porn stars and Playboy models.
But for now, while he’s still standing, it helps to understand why some sex scandals bring politicians down and others do not. What are the circumstances that turn a gossip item into a career-ending disaster?
When there is photographic evidence. We live in a visual society that was appalled by – and obsessed with –former congressman Anthony Weiner’s sexts, which included graphic shots of his crotch. It was also horrified by the far less offensive photos of Sen. Franken inappropriately pretending to grope the chest of a woman he was working with, but hours of interviews with a porn star describing her relationship with the President are not the same.
When the act contradicts the reputation. Donald Trump has never made a secret of his disrespect for women. He fat-shamed a beauty queen long before the “Acccess Hollywood” tape came out and said inappropriate things about his daughter Ivanka before that. He has long had a creepy factor. And that was already baked in when news of his alleged affairs came out.
When force or children are involved. At least there is some consistency in modern politics that when force, as allegedly in the case of Gov. Eric Greitens of Missouri, or minors, in the case of allegations about the Alabama politician Roy Moore, are involved, the level of tolerance by the public plummets.
When there is lying involved. This is where it starts to get a little murky for Trump. As everyone who followed politics in the 1990s knows, it was lying under oath about his affair with Monica Lewinsky that nearly took Bill Clinton down. He had been accused of affairs before – with Gennifer Flowers, for example.
So far, Trump has denied knowing about the payment by his attorney Michael Cohen, a contention some doubt is true. But If he did know, his denial was only to the press, and not under oath. In the court of law, that is different.
When money changes hands. Just ask former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards whether violating campaign finance laws matters to a reputation. When it is tied to a sex scandal, like Edwards’ in 2008, it can. Why? Because it is not only against the law, but campaign contributors and tax payers don’t like it when their money is used to pay off a woman with whom a politician is having an affair.
Money exchanged hands in the Stormy Daniels case, whether it was Michael Cohen’s money, the campaign’s money or Donald Trump’s money is subject of debate. But the answer could have an impact on how distracting and problematic this is for Trump.
When one party turns against you. Perhaps the most underrated indicator of the impact of a sex scandal is the reaction of the guilty politician’s own party. David Vitter survived a sex scandal, in the form of his name showing up on the “D.C. Madam” list back in 2007, in part because his party largely gave him a pass. Fast forward to 2011, when the entire Democratic leadership called on Anthony Weiner to resign – and knowing there was no other option, he did just that.
Right now, Republicans control the House and the Senate, and while many may be privately bothered by Donald Trump’s sexual indiscretions, that has not translated into an ounce of demand for accountability.
Some, like outgoing speaker of the House Paul Ryan, have even claimed to be able to “compartmentalize” the President’s indiscretions. Why? Because Republicans know that running away from a President who still has a solid hold on the right-wing base is tough politics in an election year when there is already an energy deficit on their side. And riling up the base to think the evil Democrats are trying to impeach the President may be their best hope. As a result, outrage can be portrayed as partisanship.
Trump has not entirely untangled himself from the legal impact of a payment made to Stormy Daniels, and judging from the past there is still more about his indiscretions that we probably don’t know about.
But, for now, his sex scandals have not taken him down.
In the low bar for “family values” that we are seeing in 2018, it will sadly require an ounce of courage from Republicans at a minimum and probably more public proof of what Trump knew and didn’t know about the hush money paid to Stormy Daniels to make this scandal rise above others.