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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Trump's critics turn up the heat as sexual allegations re-emerge

Four senators are demanding that the president resign after several women, who told their stories during the 2016 presidential campaign, repeated their allegations on television

US president Donald Trump returns to the White House from Mar-a-Lago, Florida on December 10, 2017. Earlier in the day, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said women who have accused Mr Trump of sexual harassment 'should be heard.'  Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA
US president Donald Trump returns to the White House from Mar-a-Lago, Florida on December 10, 2017. Earlier in the day, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said women who have accused Mr Trump of sexual harassment 'should be heard.' Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA

Donald Trump’s critics are increasing pressure on the president over historic accusations of sexual misconduct, betting that a sea change in attitudes means his accusers cannot be dismissed as easily as they were last year.

Four senators are demanding that the president resign after several women, who told their stories during the 2016 presidential campaign, repeated their allegations on television.

Mr Trump denied the allegations during the campaign and the White House did so again this week.

“Look, as the president said himself, he thinks it's a good thing that women are coming forward, but he also feels strongly that a mere allegation shouldn't determine the course,” said Sarah Sanders, the president’s press secretary.

“And again, the American people knew this and voted for the president. And we feel like we're ready to move forward in that process.”

The question now is whether Mr Trump’s bombastic persona and cries of “fake news” still make him untouchable or whether he is losing touch with the public mood … and reality.

He has so far managed to shrug off allegations of groping, ogling and unwanted affection made by at least 16 women.

Even the emergence of an audio recording during the campaign, in which he boasted of using his fame to force himself on women — “Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything” — had limited impact on his base.

The national conversation has changed since then.

Dozens of powerful men have found themselves under scrutiny, accused of using their positions to harass or abuse women ever since The New York Times revealed how Harvey Weinstein preyed on vulnerable actresses.

Last week, Al Franken, a Democratic senator, said he was standing down despite denying allegations of groping and inappropriate advances made by at least six women. His departure was interpreted by many observers as preparation for Democrats to use the growing #MeToo movement to turn the issue on the president.

Within days four women repeated their allegations against Mr Trump.

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Women accuse Trump of groping, forcibly kissing them

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Samantha Holvey, a former beauty queen, said: “Let's try round two. The environment's different. Let's try again.”

She said that Mr Trump ogled her and other Miss USA contestants in their dressing room in 2006 and described her sadness at how the issue had faded from view after the election.

“It was heartbreaking last year. We’re private citizens and for us to put ourselves out there to try and show America who this man is and how he views women, and for them to say, ‘Eh, we don't care,’ it hurt,” she said.

Her words were echoed by Rachel Crooks, a former receptionist at Trump Tower, who said the billionaire businessman kissed her on the lips without her consent in 2006. She also urged Congress to launch an investigation into Mr Trump’s behaviour.

Four senators — including Bernie Sanders and three Democrats — have demanded the same thing.

But for all the pressure, there is little chance of a Republican-dominated Congress setting up an investigation.

Meghan Milloy, co-founder of Republican Women for Progress, said she hoped times were changing although she was reminded of the moment in the campaign when Mr Trump said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and still not lose votes.

“This is a conversation we’ve been needing to have for a while,” she said. “However, I feel like Trump really could get away with murder with his base and with this Congress.

“Even with Trump blatantly admitting on tape that he sexually assaulted women, nothing has happened. So I’m not sure what it would take at this point.”

She added that the White House denial was a reminder of the power of the administration’s war on the media.

“This is an example of why all of his calls about ‘fake news’ are so dangerous: people don’t believe what they see/read/hear even when it’s properly sourced and coming from multiple outlets,” she said.

Some clarity might begin to emerge on Wednesday with the result of the Alabama special Senate election, according to Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran campaign consultant.

The Republican candidate, Roy Moore, was endorsed by Mr Trump despite allegations that he assaulted a 14-year-old girl and pursued other teenagers, when he was in his thirties. He denies any misconduct.

Were he to lose the staunch Republican state — or win only narrowly — it would suggest that voters were more concerned about his treatment of women than his conservative, Trumpist credentials, said Mr Sheinkopf, making the president vulnerable to the same concerns.

“You can’t avoid a sexual abuse, sexual harassment discussion after that,” he said.

“Or he can but he’ll be hounded by it. That’s what the Democrats are banking on, that’s why Al Franken had to go, so they’d be clear and could make the moral argument, make the women’s argument.”