The Republican Party is eagerly making Harvey Weinstein’s numerous sexual assault allegations a political cudgel against Democrats, even as some in the party see enormous potential for the charge to boomerang.
Officials close to the White House and Republican operatives are keenly aware that their party’s leader, Donald J. Trump, is one of the world’s most famously-accused serial sexual abusers. They also know that the demands their party is making for Democrats to denounce Weinstein and return his campaign contributions could be leveled back at them over their association with the president.
And yet, they’re making them anyway.
“The shamelessness [of going hard on this stuff] is off the charts,” one outside adviser to Trump and the White House conceded. “Stupid, too.”
The Trump White House itself has internalized this concern. And aides to the president, and Trump himself, have tread delicately on the Weinstein scandal. There have been exceptions to the rule, notably counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway, who tweeted her displeasure with how long it took Hillary Clinton to “sorta-kinda blame Harvey Weinstein 4 his sexually assaults.” [sic] (Conway was Trump’s campaign manager during the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape fallout.)
But the president himself has largely ducked the matter, side-stepping a Weinstein question he got from reporters and notably not mentioning the producer at all on Twitter since the stories broke.
One senior White House official told The Daily Beast that while Weinstein has been discussed in internal comms meetings, it was widely determined that there was little to gain by making it a line of attack, given the obvious pushback it inspires. Not only has Trump boasted on tape of sexual assault, but he has been accused by numerous women of harassment or assault. Trump was also accused by his ex-wife Ivana of sexually violating her—“rape,” as she described the incident in a divorce deposition—which she has since walked back.
On Friday, Paul Teller, special assistant to the president for legislative affairs, sent an email to supportive surrogates and conservative media to plug major West Wing priorities for the coming week. The email, a copy of which was provided to The Daily Beast, made no mention of the Weinstein scandal or any effort to tag Democrats with his unfolding legal and public relations disaster. (A line at the bottom of each of Teller’s weekly messages notes, “This email update is not intended to be an exhaustive list of all relevant items.”)
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (who gave a cautious response to questions about Weinstein) did not respond to a request for comment on this story. Conway didn’t respond either. Sources spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to speak freely.
But while the White House has largely showed restraint, the Republican National Committee, which serves as the president’s main political arm, has not.
The committee has used the controversy to paint Democrats and members of the media as coddlers of a sexual predator. Official committee talking points, obtained by The Daily Beast, instructed surrogates to harp on leading Democrats’ financial support from Weinstein, and the hypocrisy allegedly inherent in it.
“Democrats claim to stand up for women, but what does it say if several members of the Party would rather keep their campaign cash than speak out against a man accused of sexual harassment?” read the talking points. “Democrats who have yet to do so need to make it clear they will return or donate Weinstein’s tainted money.”
Many Democrats have returned Weinstein contributions. But not all of them. The Democratic National Committee donated only a partial sum of theirs. And instead of sending it to charity, they gave the money to female-focused political groups that work to elect Democrats. Barack Obama’s office was reluctant to address the Weinstein scandal at all, on grounds that the former president doesn’t weigh in on every controversy that rises up to national prominence. But by Tuesday, Obama had offered his own denunciation, joining 2016 presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. Neither, however, has returned a dollar given to their campaigns by the Hollywood mogul.
The RNC has homed in on that hesitation to denounce Weinstein and refusal to return his money as a scandal parallel to Weinstein’s own. Since The New York Times broke the initial story on Weinstein’s conduct, the party’s press office has sent out at least a dozen emails hitting Democrats on their financial support from Weinstein, and pressuring them to return his campaign contributions. The Republican Party of Virginia and GOP opposition research firm America Rising have made similar demands.
The aggressiveness of the attack have come even as the RNC continues to work hand-in-hand with Trump to pass his agenda and raise money. The committee held a fundraiser with the president in North Carolina just days after the Weinstein news broke. The event was projected to bring in $2 million for the party.
When pressed as to whether the committee is living in a glass house given that association with Trump, its chair had a ready answer.
“It’s not even comparable,” Ronna McDaniel told CNN host Wolf Blitzer’s comparison of Weinstein’s and Trump’s conduct. “To even make that comparison is a disrespectful to the president. He didn’t have eight settlements. He didn’t have women coming forward saying... I mean, Harvey Weinstein admits that he did that.”
While Trump has, indeed, denied all charges, many women came forward in the wake of the release of the Access Hollywood footage to allege that he had sexually harassed or assaulted them. And the tape itself amounted to admission on Trump’s part that he had done so under unspecified circumstances.
“The difference” between Trump and Weinstein,” McDaniel continued, “is Harvey Weinstein is a major bundler for the DNC. They have embraced him. He has admitted to these instances where he put these women in completely inappropriate situations. And we’re just saying to the Democrat Party, ‘give his money back. If you really stand for what you say you do, give his money back.’”
Outside of McDaniel, however, the de facto response from top GOP operatives and allies when asked about why they are denouncing Weinstein while they promote and benefit from Trump is, simply, no response at all.
Sean Spicer, a former press secretary to Trump and the RNC, has tweeted more than 20 times about Weinstein in the days since the scandal broke. He also has privately attacked reporters for not being sufficiently critical of Democrats for their failure to more quickly denounce or distance themselves from the disgraced Hollywood producer. But when asked if he felt there was an inconsistency with his work for the president, Spicer didn’t return requests for comment.