WASHINGTON — Some Democratic House members are planning to invite victims of sexual assault to President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address this month to highlight the issue, according to an aide to a lawmaker who has been a prominent voice on sexual misconduct.
“Some members will be bringing survivors of sexual assault and advocates as their guests,” said an aide to Rep. Lois Frankel of Florida, who is a leader of the Democratic Women’s Working Group in the House. The aide asked not to be identified.
Two Democratic congresswomen told NBC News Thursday that there had been discussion about bringing women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct to the nationally televised address but that the idea was scuttled.
“That was killed,” one of the congresswomen said, declining to say who put the kibosh on it.
But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has pressured Frankel not to hold mock hearings with Trump accusers, suggested Thursday that she doesn’t support anything that smacks of politicizing the issue and risks turning off Republican lawmakers who are inclined to legislate with Democrats on sexual misconduct.
“It’s not all about Donald Trump,” Pelosi said at a press conference in the Capitol. “I don’t think that that would be helpful in terms of what we need to do for the American people.”
Party leaders generally don’t dictate who rank-and-file members can invite with the one ticket each one gets for a seat in a gallery above the House floor where the president delivers the address. But it’s clear that there’s still some uncertainty within Democratic ranks over where to draw the line between addressing sexual misconduct and turning the topic into a partisan political war.
Earlier this week, Pelosi urged Frankel not to hold mock hearings with Trump accusers, an idea the Florida Democrat had floated at a private Democratic Steering and Policy Committee meeting Monday night.
Pelosi told Frankel and other Democrats that such a “hearing” — only official committees, which are run by Republicans, can hold hearings — would distract from a focus on victims across the country and on developing bipartisan efforts to craft legislation on sexual assault and harassment issues, according to two sources who were in the room.
Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women since before taking office; he has denied the claims.
It was Trump who organized a news conference with women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct right before a 2016 presidential debate with the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, the former president’s wife. One lawmaker who spoke to NBC said Democrats would be “no better” than Republicans if they retaliated in kind at the State of the Union.
Frankel, who is holding a series of sessions on sexual assault under the auspices of the Democratic Women’s Working Group, has since backed down.
“The consensus of the Democratic Caucus, and Rep. Frankel’s strong belief as well, is to focus these hearings on women across all industries — from workers on factory floors to hotel rooms to restaurant kitchens,” the Frankel aide said Wednesday night. “Rep. Frankel is hopeful they will be productive and is working to make them a bipartisan effort.”
Already, members of the women’s working group are planning to wear black to the State of the Union on Jan. 30 to show their solidarity with victims of sexual assault.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who is working on a bipartisan bill designed to strengthen sexual misconduct prevention standards in the House, told NBC News that she is encouraging women and men of both parties to join the demonstration.
“This is a culture change that is sweeping the country, and Congress is embracing it,” she said.
It remains to be seen how fast and how fully lawmakers will open their arms to reforms in the midst of a national reckoning on sexual misconduct that has rocked Capitol Hill, state legislatures, Hollywood, Wall Street and the news media.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Reps. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., and John Conyers, D-Mich., all resigned their seats amid allegations of inappropriate conduct with women. The House Office of Compliance paid out an $84,000 settlement in a sexual harassment case involving Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Texas, who has said he will not seek re-election next year; and Rep. Ruben Kihuen, D-Nev., also said he would not seek re-election after the ethics committee announced it would investigate allegations against him.
The Franken case was a tough one for some Democrats. At the time, they were trying to win an Alabama Senate race that pitted Republican Roy Moore, who had been accused of sexual misconduct with teenage girls, against Democrat Doug Jones.
Mounting allegations of unwanted groping and kissing against Franken, some in the party believed, made it harder for them to make the case that Moore was unfit for office. Others simply said that the party should have zero tolerance for men accused of improper behavior.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., long a champion of efforts to combat sexual assault and harassment in the military and other workplaces, led a series of Democratic lawmakers in calling on Franken to give up his seat.
But some Democrats had buyer’s remorse.
“I have stood for due process throughout my years as a prosecutor and in chairing the Judiciary Committee,” Sen. Pat Leahy, D-Vt., said after calling on Franken to resign. “I regret not doing that this time. The Ethics Committee should have been allowed to investigate and make its recommendation.”