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My Career Has Seen Many Powerful Men Get Caught in Sex Scandals. Donald Trump Knows He’s Vulnerable

Starting with a 1998 appearance before the Ken Starr grand jury as a junior White House staffer testifying about President Bill Clinton’s relationship with my intern Monica Lewinsky, my career has been punctuated by collisions with the law involving men, sex, and power. Following Ken Starr, it was the Obama Justice Department’s case against my former boss then Senator John Edwards involving payments in an extramarital affair that brought me hours of interviews with the FBI, an appearance before a second grand jury, and my first (and hopefully only) testimony in a criminal trial as part of the 2012 Edwards prosecution. I was also Hillary Clinton’s communications director in the 2016 presidential campaign and watched as, in the wake of the Access Hollywood tape, more than a dozen women came forward to accuse Donald Trump of sexual harassment and assault in the closing weeks before the election. (Trump has denied all accusations.) It was payments his lawyer made to adult film actor Stormy Daniels during that time that led to the indictment of Trump by the Manhattan district attorney. 

Forty years ago, it was unlikely that a political aide like me would get caught up in such legal dramas; these cases almost certainly would not have been brought forward by prosecutors. But my career, which began in the early 1990s, aligned with the dawn of a new age of accountability. A politician’s personal indiscretions, once considered off-limits to press and political foes alike, became fair game. Initially dubbed the “politics of personal destruction” during the Clinton presidency, this era morphed into a new reckoning in which politicians found their sexual misconduct exposed them to significant legal peril as political opponents, prosecutors—and, most recently, women they allegedly violated—pursued cases against them. The last three decades have shown that asking politicians about sex is an easy way to catch them in a lie—either in public or under oath. Given the number of laws governing politicians’ behavior, lying about women is a surefire way to get yourself into legal hot water.  

So it did not surprise me when, out of the three criminal investigations of former President Donald Trump currently underway, it was the one involving a cover-up of an affair that resulted in the first indictment against him. He faces more accountability next month when a lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll, the woman who has accused him of a rape occurring in the 1990s, goes to trial in New York. (Trump has denied her accusation.)

For those who are anxious to see Trump convicted for something (anything!), there’s been a lot of fretting about whether the Manhattan district attorney’s case is the strongest of the slew of possible indictments that may hit Trump this year. I understand the argument, but the notion that  prosecutors from different jurisdictions could, or should, coordinate their potential prosecutions of Trump to maximize their chances of success is misguided. Rooting for criminal convictions of a political opponent is a human thing to do and I have been guilty of it. But it is an erroneous notion of what accountability in a democratic system looks like, and, as the Edwards mistrial shows, one that can end in disappointment. 

Edwards faced a similar, but not identical, charge as Trump of violating campaign finance laws for having a donor financially support a woman with whom he had an affair. Personally, I was relieved that the Edwards case ended in a mistrial over a hung jury. When I walked into a courtroom in Greensboro, North Carolina on May 9, 2012, as a witness for the prosecution, it was not by choice. I had been summoned because, as someone who worked closely with Edwards during his two presidential campaigns and was also a friend of his late wife Elizabeth, I had been privy to some relevant (and painful) discussions. I did not want John to go to jail and I knew that despite their estrangement at the end of her life, Elizabeth had not wanted him to either. The last time I had seen John prior to the trial was when I stayed at Edwards’s home the week Elizabeth died in late 2010. In my view, this family, John included, had suffered enough. 

But my opinion didn’t matter—the law did. Lanny Breuer, who was the assistant attorney general for the criminal division in the Department of Justice under then President Barack Obama, believed Edwards had violated campaign finance laws and made the decision to proceed with a case against him.  

Washington is a small town, so I also know Breuer. He had worked as an assistant counsel in the Clinton White House where we both served. Breuer spent a good bit of his time in the Clinton White House trying to beat back the out-of-control independent counsel Starr, so it surprised me when he made the novel and controversial decision to pursue a conviction of Edwards using campaign finance law. Prosecutors don’t act on their own, though. A grand jury agreed with Breuer’s assessment and—as happened to Trump—Edwards was indicted. In the end, the jury assembled for the criminal trial decided that the prosecutors had not presented a convincing case; Edwards was acquitted of one charge and prosecutors dropped the rest after a mistrial was declared. Juries are the ones who dispense justice by determining—independent of other factors—whether a law was broken. The fact that I got the outcome I hoped for in the Edwards case is just a happy coincidence for me.  

Now, I’m watching Trump’s case from a very different vantage point. As a woman who worked for Hillary Clinton, I experienced some degree of satisfaction as Trump—who over the course of his career has been named in thousands of lawsuits—faced his first arrest because he tried to silence a woman to help him win the 2016 election. The case has already revealed important details including that while Trump was outwardly nonchalant about the 2016 accusations women made against him—dismissing his accusers as liars or too overweight or unattractive to assault—behind the scenes he and his team were furiously arranging payouts to Daniels to keep their alleged affair a secret. (Trump has acknowledged the payments but denied the affair and any wrongdoing.) I found this revealing; it suggests the ever-confident Trump feared there was a limit to bad behavior the public would be willing to accept. Turns out he overestimated America at that moment. Trump was elected President of the United States and the only person held responsible for the fallout from the Access Hollywood tape was Billy Bush who lost his job for laughing at Trump’s vulgarity.