Why 2020 Democrats Aren't Highlighting the Rape Allegation Against Trump

Charlotte Alter
"Candidates jump in once it is elevated," one staffer to a top-tier Democratic presidential candidate says.

It’s been three days days since the writer E. Jean Carroll accused President Donald Trump of rape, but the allegation has caused barely a ripple in the 2020 campaign.

The nearly two dozen Democrats vying to unseat Trump have issued statements expressing the usual sentiments: shock, disgust, calls for investigations. Senator Elizabeth Warren may have captured the reaction best: “We know Donald Trump’s character. And it’s revealed every single day,” she told reporters last week. “There aren’t any real surprises. Just the details.”

In a cover story in New York Magazine, the longtime advice columnist wrote that she remembered Trump “forcing his fingers around my private area,” and recalled that he thrust “his penis halfway — or completely, I’m not certain — inside me.” She told two friends about the incident immediately afterwards, and both confirmed the incident to New York, although TIME could not independently confirm the allegations.

Trump has repeatedly denied the charges. He said in a statement that he “never met” Carroll, even though the author published a picture of them together at a party. On Monday, Trump again denied the allegation in an interview with The Hill. “I’ll say it with great respect: Number one, she’s not my type,” he said. “Number two, it never happened. It never happened, OK?”

It was the most serious allegation to date against a President who has been taped bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy” and accused of sexually assaulting or harassing at least 21 other women. (Trump denies them all.) Carroll is the first woman to publicly accuse Trump of rape. (His ex-wife Ivana Trump once privately accused him of raping her, but later walked back her claims, saying she didn’t mean it “in a literal or criminal sense.”)

Yet the allegation against the President of the United States has not shifted the dynamics of the 2020 race, and most of the Democratic candidates responded with the bare minimum of condemnation.

Former Vice President Joe Biden called it a “serious allegation.” Senator Kamala Harris said through a spokeswoman that she would “support any investigations—law enforcement or otherwise.” Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke called for “accountability and justice.” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, whose campaign has emphasized her record of supporting sexual assault victims, never tweeted about the story.

The muted response sent a loud message: even in a post-Me Too era, Democratic candidates don’t believe condemning the President’s alleged sexual crimes is a winning political issue. TIME reached out to four prominent presidential campaigns for further insight into internal deliberations, and none wanted to comment on the record. Staffers for three of them described a calculus that was at once practical and defeatist: at this point in the race, they’re running against each other, not Trump. Days before the first primary debates, the candidates are busy prepping their talking points about their vision for the future, and don’t want to get sucked into the President’s vortex of accusations and denials.

Those staffers noted that in a week dominated by tensions with Iran and new details about “appalling” conditions for migrant children at the border, a rape allegation against the President barely made front-page news.

“The media has a responsibility to elevate this stuff, and folks are already noting how it’s absurd that the media is treating a rape accusation against the President of the United States as, at best, C-block news,” said one staffer to a top-tier Democratic presidential candidate. “Candidates jump in once it is elevated.” Of course, the allegation came to light on the cover of a major magazine, was covered by every major news outlet, and Carroll appeared on major cable news shows.

Instead, the campaigns’ decision not to take up the issue more aggressively reflects a political calculation. Multiple allegations of sexual assault didn’t stop Trump in 2016, the staffers pointed out. And it’s not clear they’ll do much to hurt him now. Roughly 50% of registered voters believe the allegations against Trump are credible, according to a 2017 Politico/Morning Consult poll, including 39% of Trump voters. That means there’s a significant number of voters who believe Trump probably sexually assaulted women—and voted for him anyway.

It’s too early to know how the latest allegations will play out in the 2020 campaign. But what seems clear is the Democratic candidates have all reached the same private conclusion: if Trump loses, it won’t be because of this.