Comeback Kid

Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s Martyrdom

DSK’s French friends declare him a victim of a faulty American judicial system. But, as Christopher Dickey reports, it’s not over yet.

Allison Joyce, Reuters / Landov

Amid the growing confusion about what Dominique Strauss-Kahn has done, or what’s been done to him, conspiracy theories are flourishing, and he’s smiling. But this survivor of previous political scandals in the 1990s, this 62-year-old “Comeback Kid,” as one of his friends likes to call him, should be careful. Even Teflon gets hard to clean after a while. And when DSK left traces of his sperm in the spit of an African immigrant maid at the Manhattan Sofitel on May 14, he opened the way for far-reaching investigations and accusations that are likely to go on for months or, indeed, years.

Over the long weekend, since the maid’s rehearsal of lies to gain political asylum in the United States in 2004 was exposed, and the sexual-assault case against Strauss-Kahn started to fall apart, a liberated DSK has squired his mega-millionaire wife, Anne Sinclair, around Manhattan. They’ve shouldered through phalanxes of paparazzi to a cozy little Italian restaurant and strolled grinning, not quite smugly, in and out of their $50,000-a-month rented Tribeca townhouse.

Although the charges against him have not been dropped as yet, law- enforcement officials involved with the case think they almost certainly will be. This, even though Strauss-Kahn never presented his version of events to the public at all. He pleaded not guilty, but that’s hardly the same as innocent.

In France, polls show that roughly half the people are ready for DSK to reenter French politics—even if for the moment he no longer enjoys remotely the kind of popularity that had made him seem a sure shot to beat incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year’s election. Meanwhile, DSK partisans are asking “questions in the form of accusations,” as the conservative French daily Le Figaro put it. Their suggestion: that someone close to Sarkozy—maybe in the intelligence services, maybe connected with the hotel where DSK stayed, maybe all of the above—had mounted what Michèle Sabban of DSK’s Socialist Party called a political attack. A spokesman for the hotel has flatly rejected the innuendo.

At this point, DSK is being portrayed in Paris as something of a martyr. And knee-jerk anti-Americanism is serving him well. The criminal-justice system and the press in New York have been pilloried eloquently and at length by none other than the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, writing for THE DAILY BEAST. Such is the atmosphere in France that when Tristane Banon, a young reporter, announced through her lawyer on Monday that she would bring charges against Strauss-Kahn for assaulting her in 2003, DSK’s attorneys responded they would go after her for defamation. Teflon DSK seems confident he can tough out this one, too.

But once the public recovers from the tabloid whiplash that portrayed Strauss-Kahn as "Le Perv" for weeks—then suddenly decided, on scant evidence, that his immigrant accuser was really a prostitute—a rather different narrative is likely to emerge, and it will be one that calls into question not only his morals, but, perhaps more important for a man who would be (or would have been) president, his judgment.

It’s worth repeating that we do not have Strauss-Kahn’s account of what happened in Suite 2806 of the Manhattan Sofitel on Saturday, May 14, between 12:06 p.m., when key-card records show that the maid entered the room, and 12:28 p.m., when Strauss-Kahn checked out in the lobby. His lawyers in various court appearances left open the possibility that he had a consensual sexual encounter with the maid, but it seems they basically bet their case on the likelihood they’d be able to turn up enough dirt about her to keep anything from sticking to Strauss-Kahn. From the moment he was detained at JFK airport, he let others do the talking for and against him.

The accuser was an easy target for the DSK defense team and TD International, the Washington investigative firm full of former CIA and British intelligence operatives retained to help him. She was an immigrant asylum seeker, and embellishment of asylum applications is extremely common. She was a single mother with few obvious resources trying to raise a teenage daughter in a rough section of the Bronx. To the extent she had a support network, it was in the community of first-generation West African immigrants in New York. And like many new immigrant communities, whether the Italians at the beginning of the last century or the Russians at the end, the West Africans have their share of hustlers, scam artists, criminals, and gangsters. Guinea, where the maid came from, has become a major transshipment point for the international drug trade. For anyone wanting to shoot holes in the maid’s account of her encounter with Strauss-Kahn, her background, her social milieu, and indeed her nationality offered what might be called a target-rich environment.

The office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., no doubt feeling the pressure, exploded the whole case last week by punctiliously volunteering to the defense the information that the maid had been a well-rehearsed dissembler for her 2004 asylum application, and that she was especially good convincing people she’d been raped under circumstances that were entirely fictional. On top of that, she had been recorded on the phone, only a day after she accused Strauss-Kahn, telling a man serving time in Arizona on drug charges that she thought there might be some money to be made off this case. When it turned out she had many cell phones in her name, and several bank accounts into which almost $100,000 reportedly had been funneled in the past, her credibility was shot no matter what actually happened to her in Suite 2806.

If there was a huge flaw in the initial police investigation, it’s that the cops didn’t see this coming. In the aftermath of the Strauss-Kahn arrest, when I spent several days talking about procedures with the Manhattan Special Victims Squad that handled the case, I asked directly several times if it had interviewed specific figures in the West African community who had taken the extraordinary step of holding a press conference to vouch for the maid’s character only three days after Strauss-Kahn’s arrest. The police told me they had not.

Since the case against DSK started to collapse last week, law-enforcement officials familiar with it have suggested it was taken away too quickly from the detectives at the Special Victims Squad. District Attorney Vance opted to try to keep Strauss-Kahn in jail after his arrest, and therefore had to have an indictment in five days. If he hadn’t been so intent on confining Strauss-Kahn, an indictment could have waited. With more time, the cops could have had a clearer picture of the maid’s background and connections … perhaps.

So, what do we know at this point, and what are some of the major questions that remain?

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The DNA evidence, by all accounts, makes it clear that Strauss-Kahn, who was at the time the director of the International Monetary Fund and the probable next president of France, ejaculated in the mouth of an African immigrant maid in the Sofitel Hotel minutes before he was due to check out and have lunch with his daughter.

The extent to which this was coerced or consensual remains unclear. By the maid’s account, she walked into the suite, saw this man naked in the bedroom, and turned to leave. He grabbed her from behind, with his hands on her breasts, threw her on the floor in the bedroom and tried to force his penis into her mouth. She’s a tall, strong, 32-year-old woman and she got away, but instead of going out the door into the hall, she went deeper into the suite to the main bathroom. He cornered her there and he ejaculated in her mouth. At some point her pantyhose were ripped and, according to her current lawyer, Kenneth Thompson, her vagina was bruised, as verified at the hospital by a trained examiner.

The whole scene transpired in a very short period of time. Consider how long it would have taken Strauss-Kahn to put on all his clothes, brush his teeth (leaving a bit of toothpaste on his lips, as we’ve reported), pick up his bag, get the elevator from the 28th floor to the lobby, and check out. Five minutes? Ten minutes? Since the maid certifiably entered the room at 12:06 p.m., the whole incident would have had to take place in 12 to 17 minutes. If she resisted, it would seem it was not for very long. If she was intimidated, it would seem to be because of something Strauss-Kahn said, not because of a physical threat. When she initially told her supervisor of the incident, she reportedly asked if the important clients could do anything they wanted with the help.

Prosecutors and police insist there is no evidence the maid was part of a premeditated plot against Strauss-Kahn. As one veteran of CIA cover operations suggested soon after the event, “There are too many moving parts” that would have had to fall into place to make this happen. And in any case, DSK would have had to cooperate. One might hypothesize the maid was part of a scam to shake down any rich old man in a luxury suite. But if so, no evidence of that has been made public.

Key-card records show the maid made several visits to 2820 on the same floor as Strauss-Kahn’s suite before she went to his. Nothing especially surprising there, except that she kept opening the door instead of leaving it ajar while cleaning. Then, after her encounter with DSK in 2806, key records show the maid went back into 2820 for just a couple of minutes. She initially left this out of her otherwise detailed and oft-repeated accounts of the incident, which is one reason prosecutors started to lose confidence in her. Perhaps she was just stunned and wandering. But of course a couple of minutes in an unoccupied room would have given her a chance to make a phone call saying what had happened.

At least one call that day appears to have been to Blake Diallo, manager of the Café 2115 in Harlem. On May 17, three days after the incident at the Sofitel, he told a reporter from the French tabloid Le Parisien that he normally talked to the maid every day. He called her his “sister,” in a manner of speaking, but others in his circle described her as his girlfriend. That morning of Saturday the 14th, he said, she hadn’t answered the phone. Then she called him in the evening to say “something horrible had happened to her.”

As Diallo told the story to Le Parisien, “It was just at that moment that I looked up at the local news channel”—a TV is always on in the café—“and I saw that Dominique Strauss-Kahn had been arrested. I know that he is one of the most powerful men in the world. I am the one who told her who her attacker really was. She didn’t know.”

Diallo is also, according to his close associates, the man who signed up the maid with her first lawyer, whom he found over the Internet on the day of the incident.

The next day, the maid was on the phone with another man she knew in prison in Arizona talking about the money that might be made in this case.

That recorded call, and the circumstances around it, are what have freed Strauss-Kahn on his own recognizance for now, and probably will end the criminal case against him for good. His guilt or innocence may never be proved. But the question of his judgment is not going away.