Political News

How confronting Democrats now could position Gillibrand to take on Trump in 2020

Posted December 7, 2017 6:25 p.m. EST
Updated December 8, 2017 8:26 a.m. EST

— When Democrats have faced uncomfortable questions about their own bad actors, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has now twice answered first.

The New York senator's Facebook post Wednesday calling on Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota to resign in the wake of sexual assault allegations led to dozens more party leaders issuing the same call within hours.

It came weeks after she'd made headlines when asked about Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct. Gillibrand said that -- if that misconduct happened today -- she'd want Clinton to resign the presidency.

Widely seen as a prospect for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, Gillibrand's moves against leading figures in her own party have positioned her to turn her focus to Republicans and make an aggressive case against Trump.

The short version: At the same time Gillibrand led the charge against sexual misconduct in her own party, Trump -- accused of sexual assault himself -- endorsed Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate facing allegations that he pursued sexual relationships with teenage girls while in his 30s.

Gillibrand's aides insist there was no political calculation behind her moves. Instead they see the continuation of her years-long efforts to combat sexual assault in the military and on college campuses.

Still, they believe that Gillibrand's moves allowed Democrats to move past questions about party members' own behavior -- shifting the focus back to Trump.

"This really isn't about 2020," said one Democratic strategist who has worked for Gillibrand, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly. "It's about, we have a sexual assaulter in the White House. And how do we do something about that? How is that OK? How did that become acceptable? It cannot become acceptable."

In her Facebook post, Gillibrand cast Trump's election as the catalyst for the societal change in how Americans view sexual assault allegations.

"In the wake of the election of President Trump, in just the last few months, our society is changing, and I encourage women and men to keep speaking up to continue this progress. At this moment, we need to speak hard truths or lose our chance to make lasting change," she wrote.

But her posture -- particularly toward Clinton -- has led to a round of questions about why she didn't criticize the former president before Hillary Clinton (who Gillibrand replaced in the Senate in 2009) had lost and the family had faded from the Democratic political scene.

Longtime Hillary Clinton aide Philippe Reines tweeted, in response to Gillibrand's comments, that she "took the Clintons' endorsements, money, and seat. Hypocrite."

"Interesting strategy for 2020 primaries," he tweeted. "Best of luck."

Gillibrand called that criticism "ridiculous" and "wrong" in an interview with MSNBC last month.

"Bill Clinton did very important things for this country, but my point is about this conversation that we're having today. We need to have highest standards for elected leaders, and we have to change what's happening throughout society and we have to allow people to tell their stories, that's what this is all about," she said.

It was far from the first time Gillibrand angered members of her own party over her approach to sexual assault and other issues important to women.

Gillibrand feuded in 2013 with Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, then the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, over military sexual assault. Levin wanted the Defense Department to keep its existing system for prosecuting sexual assault cases; Gillibrand pushed for major reforms.

She later sought legislation focused on campus sexual assault and is now pursuing legislative changes to how sexual assault and harassment is handled by members of Congress and their staffs.

Those efforts have gotten attention outside the political sphere. Gillibrand, more than most politicians, speaks frequently to magazines and websites that cover issues important to women and this year, in particular, regularly sits for podcast interviews.

Gillibrand launched her "Off the Sidelines" political action committee to back women candidates for office, and made waves when she endorsed an abortion-rights-supporting female primary challenger to Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who opposes abortion rights.

"You all have no idea how many chits that earned Gillibrand in Illinois. We're not only a big donor state for 2020, but we have lots of delegates and we send more volunteers to Iowa than any other state," tweeted veteran Illinois Democratic strategist Tom Bowen. "Smart, smart move."

Now that Franken is sidelined, the Democratic strategist who worked for Gillibrand said Trump "should be very, very concerned here."

"It should be quite the contrast for the media to take note of and for the American people, for voters, to know that Al Franken resigned and Roy Moore could be sitting in the chamber," the strategist said. "And that's what Donald Trump seems to want."