On 15 December 2017, The Hill, a website devoted to Capitol Hill news and commentary, posted an article reporting that prominent Los Angeles-based women's rights attorney Lisa Bloom had offered money to women who were considering going public with accusations against President Donald Trump involving sexual harassment and assault:
California lawyer Lisa Bloom’s efforts included offering to sell alleged victims’ stories to TV outlets in return for a commission for herself, arranging a donor to pay off one Trump accuser’s mortgage and attempting to secure a six-figure payment for another woman who ultimately declined to come forward after being offered as much as $750,000, the clients told The Hill.
The women’s accounts were chronicled in contemporaneous contractual documents, emails and text messages reviewed by The Hill, including an exchange of texts between one woman and Bloom that suggested political action committees supporting Hillary Clinton were contacted during the effort.
That story was aggregated and reported widely across a range of conservative web sites and news outlets, from the influential Fox News cable channel to clickbait sites such as ConservativeFiringLine.com. For roughly two weeks, however, legacy news organizations steered clear of of the story — until 31 December 2017, when the New York Times reported that partisans from both sides of the political spectrum were offering money in exchange for career-ending accusations of sexual misconduct against their rivals. At the time, women (and some men) engaged in the #MeToo movement were outing powerful men such as Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and NBC News anchor Matt Lauer as predators. Multiple legislators were pressured by allegations of sexual misconduct to resign or retire, including two prominent Democrats, Rep. John Conyers and Sen. Al Franken.
Neither Bloom nor her client Jill Harth (the only Trump accuser named in the story) denied that money was paid. Both sent statements to The Hill confirming that Bloom set up a GoFundMe for Harth and facilitated a donation that paid off the mortgage on Harth's apartment in Queens. They also accused The Hill of launching a partisan attack against them on behalf of President Trump.
Apparently nonplussed by the dramatic back-and-forth and deeply politicized nature of the story, readers wrote to us asking whether the allegations were true, as exemplified by this e-mail we received on 18 December 2017:
Supposedly Lisa Bloom, daughter of attorney Gloria Allred, has been trying to pay women to make false claims of sexual assaults against President Trump. Any truth to this?
The portion of the claim that money changed hands was true (and Bloom is indeed famed women's rights lawyer Gloria Allred's daughter), but Vince Gonzales, journalism professor at the University of Southern California (USC), told us the story caused confusion because readers were unsure what to believe in light of the revelation:
What they're asking is, if this is true does it then call the accuser’s account into question? The answer is no, but the sad part is they’re not wrong in asking those questions. That's the place where your mind goes — is this person doing this because they feel it’s important or because they feel it’s an opportunity for personal gain?
Gonzales pointed to a 9 November 2017 article from the Washington Post in which multiple women accused then-Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore of either molesting them or coming on to them sexually when he was in his thirties and they were but teens. Moore, a Republican, lost that election in an upset victory for his Democratic rival.
Gonzales said the reason the Post story was powerful was because although Moore supporters tried to trick Alabama voters into thinking the women were paid to come forward, no credible proof ever surfaced that was the case:
To this day no one can say any of those accusers were given anything for telling their story and that’s what made it so hard to refute in a deep red state where Moore was so well respected.
You want the people who speak out to be white knights, to have only the public's interest in mind when coming forward. As soon as there’s any money changing hands and it turns out there are major donors or political actors in play, whether it impacted their statements or not, it calls it into question.
Attorney and Chapman University School of Law professor Ron Rotunda told us it is not ethical for attorneys to make financial arrangements offering clients money because it creates the perception that a witness has been paid off to testify (in a manner contrary to the truth):
These victims have serious stories to tell and we have to get justice for them. But we undercut that when people are paid money for their testimony. It taints it. If this were a jury trial, you’d have to ask [a witness], "You got x-thousand dollars to say this?" and from there it's not hard to connect the dots when there are only two dots.
The problem is, if a real victim accepts a payoff it undercuts their story. That’s just a fact of life.
But Jill Harth told us she didn't net any personal gain from the fact that her story became public. She highlighted the pain she suffered after her 1997 lawsuit accusing Trump of forcing her into a bedroom at Mar-a-Lago and attempting to rape her came to light during the 2016 campaign cycle:
I lost jobs for the whole year of 2016. I was so upset I couldn't focus. I lost friends, clients — that donation helped me to survive. They are making it sound like this was all a plot for money. That is not true.
Harth told us the fact that Bloom set up a GoFundMe account which raised $2,317 on her behalf and arranged for a donor to pay off her mortgage does not affect the veracity of her story. She pointed out she was never given a choice about going public: she was identified by reporters amid the tumultuous campaign who dug up her old lawsuit (which she had dropped so that her then-husband could settle a separate lawsuit against Trump).
Harth told us she was angry and felt betrayed by The Hill's reporting, which she described as "tabloidesque" and "a hit piece," saying that "They're definitely making it harder for anyone to come forward [with sexual abuse allegations] because look what they’re putting me through. This was retaliation and a direct way to discredit me."
Harth pointed to a follow-up article that described an email she sent to then-candidate Trump in 2015 offering to do his makeup, noting that story had already been reported by the Guardiana year earlier. Harth said she felt the story had no news value and was intended to make her look bad:
[In 2015] I was older wiser, stronger, smarter. I didn't think [Trump] would ever mess with me again, especially since he was a married man, and older. I thought he would have calmed down. To me, I was over it. I was thinking as a businesswoman and taking a page out of his book— think big.
Obviously it was a bad idea because they used it all against me. It is Infuriating and hurtful and a malicious attempt to discredit me.
We called The Hill's managing editor, Bob Cusack, and left a message noting we wanted to ask about Harth's comments, but in response we received only a call from a third-party public relations firm. High Ten Media's Lisa Dallas gave us the following statement: "The Hill stands by its story completely."
Bloom sent us a statement saying that donors had offered money to ensure the safety of women she was representing:
Most people do not get paid for interviews. But some shows will offer a few thousand dollars to license photos, or for an appearance fee. When my client is a single mother, unemployed, in dire need of therapy, on the verge of bankruptcy or all of the above, she may choose to do an interview with the outlet that will compensate her. A few thousand dollars hardly levels the playing field against a billionaire like Donald Trump, but it helps a little, and I leave that decision to my client, after she’s been fully vetted for veracity.
Due to an unexpected turn of events, donors also reached out to help some of my clients last year.
That "unexpected turn of events" was a 2 November 2016 press conference at Bloom's Los Angeles office, in which a woman accusing Trump of raping her when she was 13 years old was a no-show. Bloom said the woman backed out abruptly because of death and rape threats:
The cancelled press conference was widely reported. Multiple donors then contacted me out of the blue with offers to ensure the safety of women who might still come forward. I can say unequivocally that we did not communicate with Hillary Clinton nor anyone from her campaign. As an attorney I was obligated to relay those offers of funds for relocation to a safer community and round the clock security, and I was happy to do it. And I offered what people come to me for — my opinion and advice. My clients wanted to tell their stories, and now here was a safer way to do it.
Two weeks after the Hill story was published, the New York Times followed it up with a report about the infusion of big-donor money as political operatives worked to leverage the #MeToo movement in an effort to thwart enemies:
Gloria Allred, a high-profile women’s rights lawyer and Democratic donor, is raising money to fund a lawsuit against Mr. Trump by a woman who says he sexually assaulted her. The woman, Summer Zervos, has filed a defamation suit against the president that could force Mr. Trump to respond to sexual misconduct accusations made in the closing weeks of the campaign by a raft of women.
And a nonprofit group founded by the Democratic activist David Brock, which people familiar with the arrangements say secretly spent $200,000 on an unsuccessful effort to bring forward accusations of sexual misconduct against Mr. Trump before Election Day, is considering creating a fund to encourage victims to bring forward similar claims against Republican politicians.
Activists on the right are also involved. In November, the Trump-backing social media agitator Mike Cernovich offered to pay $10,000 for details of any congressional sexual harassment settlements, and said on Twitter that he would cover the expenses of “any VICTIM of a Congressman who wants to come forward to tell her story.” Shortly before posting that offer, a source provided Mr. Cernovich with a copy of a sexual harassment settlement that led in December to the resignation of Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, until then the longest-serving member of the House.
Both Gonzales and Rotunda cautioned that spending large sums of money in an effort to coax potential accusers to come forward can lead to a toxic political arena that discredits real victims, while creating a mentality that anything goes so long as one brings down their opponent. Rotunda told us that:
My concern is, we have a lot of legitimate victims and we want to reform the system and to the extent this draws out other people with fake stories, that hurts real victims. We want to try and clean this up — we don't want this to be just a way to get at a particular politician.
Gonzales said that political operatives who insert themselves into stories take the focus away from the abuse a victim suffered, negating the social value of the story:
It's a zero-sum game, but it’s a very short term gain. If you're a political donor who gets involved and if the story is true, you become the story. You become the political motivation behind the story and then people no longer have to focus on the allegations. That's the danger.