One way to assess a politician’s trustworthiness is to look at their ratio of outrage to action. When it comes to outrage about sexual harassment, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has been one of the loudest voices in the room. She was the first and most outspoken Democrat to demand Al Franken’s head on a platter in 2017 after he was accused of inappropriate behavior, a decision she continues to defend. “Enough was enough,” she told an Iowa audience in January. “You have to stand up for what’s right, especially when it’s hard. And if you create a pass because you love someone, or you like someone, or admire someone, or they’re part of your team, it’s not OK, it’s just not.”
She is known as the #MeToo senator, not only for opportunistically turning on her mentor, Hillary Clinton, and arguing that Bill Clinton should have resigned because of his sexual improprieties, but also because she has made the movement’s rhetoric a cornerstone of her presidential campaign. Gillibrand has even sponsored legislation that would require assault and harassment allegations in the military to be handled by outside investigators (rather than internally by commanders).
But when confronted with accusations of harassment in her own office, as Politico reports, Gillibrand’s public outrage did not translate into MeToo action. Instead, Gillibrand chose to handle things quietly and internally. The investigation, such as it was, evidently did not thoroughly vet the accuser’s claims and was performed by senior staffers. Although the accuser was told that Gillibrand believed her claims, the accused, Abbas Malik, was not fired. What’s more, her accuser claims that Malik threatened her with retaliation.
The staffer who lodged the accusation was so disgusted with the process that she eventually chose to resign. In a letter to Gillibrand, she wrote: “I trusted and leaned on this statement that you made: ‘You need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is O.K. None of it is acceptable.’ Your office chose to go against your public belief that women shouldn’t accept sexual harassment in any form and portrayed my experience as a misinterpretation instead of what it actually was: harassment and, ultimately, intimidation.”
Gillibrand quickly responded that her office had thoroughly investigated the matter. As CNN noted, “though the investigation concluded that inappropriate behavior had happened, the employee’s specific behavior did not meet the standard for sexual harassment,” in part because, as the accuser was told, the allegations were a “he said, she said” situation.
Despite the public drubbing, Gillibrand claimed to have nothing but love for her former staffer–literally. “I told this employee at the time that she was loved, that we loved her. I deeply valued her. Which is why we took her allegations immediately, investigated them immediately and did a professional and thorough investigation,” Gillibrand said. Later, she added, “I told her that we loved her at the time and the same is true today.”
But Gillibrand’s love-bombing can’t distract from the fact that, if the woman’s claims are true, Gillibrand failed to follow her own ideological principles regarding accusations of harassment. At the very least, given the close relationship Gillibrand has with the accused, the senator should have engaged an outside investigator to handle the complaint. According to Politico, Gillibrand officiated at Malik’s wedding, he had keys to her house, and often drove her children to school. Staffers referred to him unironically as “the keeper of her purse.”
An outside investigator might also have pointed out that Gillibrand, who has preached zero-tolerance policies for harassment, didn’t practice them in her own office. After all, it was only after Politico’s reporters confirmed claims from other former Gillibrand staffers (whom Gillibrand had not contacted during the internal investigation) about the harassment and published their story that Gillibrand finally fired Malik. “When I had the courage to speak up about my harasser, I was belittled by her office and treated like an inconvenience,” Malik’s accuser said of Gillibrand. “She kept a harasser on her staff until it proved politically untenable for her to do so.”
Gillibrand’s experience—like the ongoing saga of Virginia lieutenant governor Justin Fairfax—should be a teachable moment for the Democrats who were all too eager to wrap themselves in the moral certitude of the #MeToo movement at its outset. It reveals how complicated and challenging it can be to handle such accusations, and how even people committed to a fair and equitable process often fail to do so effectively. Despite the quasi-revolutionary rhetoric of hashtag activists, reforming the reporting and investigative procedures around these claims–not to mention transforming norms around harassment and assault—takes time, good faith effort, and, most importantly, humility to accomplish. Gillibrand could have responded by acknowledging where her office’s procedures failed to live up to her ideals, and then talked through the ways she might or might not need to reassess both.
Will Gillibrand take this opportunity to engage in a little #MeToo soul searching? Not likely. As Gillibrand’s former staffer told Politico, after the internal investigation yielded a slap on the wrist for Malik, Gillibrand “tried to console her with a quick hug and a ‘We love you.’” The staffer’s response could stand in as an observation for Gillibrand’s broader #MeToo rhetoric: She “considered it an empty gesture.”