Donald Trump, Groper in Chief

Nicholas Kristof
Nicholas Kristof

JILL HARTH’S first concern with Donald Trump’s hands wasn’t that they were small. It’s that they were everywhere.

Harth and her longtime boyfriend were in meetings with Trump to forge a business partnership. “He was relentless,” Harth recalled in an interview, describing how on Dec. 12, 1992, he took the couple to dinner and a club — and then situated himself beside Harth and ran his hands up her skirt, to her crotch. “I didn’t know how to handle it. I would go away from him and say I have to go to the restroom. It was the escape route.”

We’ve all heard of Trump’s unethical or loutish behavior, most recently in a 2005 recording unearthed by The Washington Post on Friday in which he boasts of kissing and groping women. The story that Harth and the boyfriend, George Houraney, tell of their interactions with Trump over six years — including business cheating and attempted rape — shows how that predation worked in practice. “He name-dropped continuously,” Harth said under oath in a deposition in a subsequent lawsuit, “when he wasn’t groping me.”

Harth and Houraney were simply an ordinary Florida couple thrilled that Trump wanted to partner with them. And that’s when the nightmare began. (Trump strongly denies these improprieties.) Anyone thinking about voting for Trump would do well to listen to Houraney and Harth.

They were operating a small Florida company called American Dream Enterprise that ran a “calendar girl” beauty contest, an automobile show, a music competition and other events. They had been together for 13 years and were negotiating with Trump to hold the events in his Atlantic City casinos as a way to bring all of them more revenue.

Trump dazzled them with his bold and confident vision of turning their events into huge moneymakers. So, Harth says, she was in a bind familiar to many women: She didn’t want to risk offending a potential partner and benefactor, but neither did she want to be pawed.

The first sign of trouble came the day before the evening groping, in an initial business meeting in which, Harth and Houraney say, Trump spent the time asking about the breasts of the beauty contestants — real or enhanced? — and staring at Harth, then 30. At one point he asked Houraney, “Are you sleeping with her?” Houraney explained awkwardly that they were a couple, but Trump was unfazed.

“You know, there’s going to be a problem,” Trump told Houraney, according to a 1997 sexual harassment lawsuit Harth filed against him. “I’m very attracted to your girlfriend.”

On Jan. 24, 1993, Harth and Houraney went to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida for a contract-signing celebration, bringing along some “calendar girls” at Trump’s request. He offered Harth a tour of the estate and then pulled her into the empty bedroom of his daughter Ivanka.

“I was admiring the decoration, and next thing I know he’s pushing me against a wall and has his hands all over me,” Harth told me. “He was trying to kiss me. I was freaking out.” Harth says she was desperately protesting, and finally managed to run out of the room and find the group again. She and Houraney left rather than stay the night, as they had intended.

Some of the calendar girls stayed, and the sexual harassment lawsuit says Trump showed up uninvited in the predawn hours in the bedroom of one of the young women; she kicked him out but was shaken. When contacted, the woman declined to speak about the experience, and I’m not naming her here.

Trump was then with Marla Maples, who was pregnant that spring with his daughter Tiffany, but this didn’t constrain him. He took an intense interest in the calendar girls, pursuing some and rejecting others, Harth says, adding that he had an aversion to black contestants and made derogatory comments about them.

That year, Harth continued to meet Trump for business — and, she says, he continued to try to jump her. “He’d say, ‘Let’s go in my room, I want to lie down,’ and he’d pull me along. I’d say, ‘I don’t want to lie down,’ and it would turn into a wrestling match. … I remember yelling, ‘I didn’t come here for this.’ He’d say, ‘Just calm down.’”

Harth says that she worried about being raped by a man who weighed twice as much as she did, and at one point she vomited as a defense mechanism. But she says that he was never violent and genuinely seemed to assume sexual interest on her part; often he was playful as she was frightened: “His mind was in a totally different place than mine,” Harth recalls. “He thinks he’s God’s gift to women.”

Harth said in her deposition that all this was “very traumatic,” but she remained cordial because she feared that showing anger would destroy the business relationship and her ambitions of getting ahead. For the same reason, she told me, she did not go to the polilce to report sexual assault.

This was also a different time, when it was perhaps more accepted for powerful men to prey on young women, when women felt less able to protest. In fairness to Trump, other senior men in politics and business — John Kennedy and Bill Clinton come to mind — also sometimes showed a sense of entitlement toward young women.

In the end, Houraney and Harth used a Trump casino to hold an event that Trump praised in a letter to them. But in 1994, Trump walked away from the relationship and refused to pay what he owed, they say.

Houraney, who owned the events planning company, sued Trump for breach of contract, and the two sides eventually reached a confidential settlement. Harth says Trump paid somewhat more than $100,000. Harth separately had filed her sexual harassment suit, which also alleged attempted rape; she withdrew her suit as a condition for settling the contract dispute, she says.

After the settlement, Houraney and Harth say, Trump reached out to them, inviting them to a party and coming across as so charming that they wondered if he had been transformed. Not long after this, Houraney and Harth, who had married in 1995, had a bitter falling out and divorce.

Houraney and Harth haven’t spoken in years, but they offered almost identical accounts when I interviewed them separately, and their stories match Harth’s deposition and her sexual harassment lawsuit from the time.

During the divorce proceedings, Harth fell into a deep depression, compounded by the death of her brother and the loss of her job at Houraney’s company. At this point Trump began calling her, consoling her on the divorce and offering her a plane ticket to visit him in New York. She was wary but also flattered and practical enough to wonder if he might help her find employment. So in 1998 she began dating him.

Jill Harth at home in Queens. Behind her is a 1996 portrait of her by Ralph Wolfe Cowan, who has also painted Donald Trump.
Chad Batka for The New York Times

I asked her: Why would a woman who accused Trump of attempted rape ever go out with him?

“I was scared, thinking, ‘what am I going to do now?’” she says. “When he called me and tried to work on me again, I was thinking maybe I should give this a try, maybe if he’s still working on me, I should give this rich guy a chance.”

They dated for several months in 1998, when he was separated from Maples, she says. In the end, he was a disappointing boyfriend, always watching television and rarely offering emotional support, she says.

“It was a hard divorce, and I was in a nonstop crying jag,” she recalls. “You know what he was thinking? He wanted me to get a boob job. He made an appointment for me to get a boob job, a doctor in Miami.”

Harth says that she left him, finally fed up, and that soon afterward he took up with Melania, his current wife.

The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment, but his version of all this seems to be very different.

In 1996, after Harth alleged sexual harassment, The National Enquirer quoted Trump as having told a close friend: “The truth is that Jill Harth is obsessed with me — and would do everything she could to get into my pants.”

In April of this year, Trump told The Boston Globe that Harth and Houraney had alleged sexual harassment only because their breach-of-contract lawsuit was going nowhere, and he denied as “total nonsense” the idea that he had slipped into the bed of the young woman at Mar-a-Lago. Trump also denied that he had rejected black contestants.

The Trump campaign also released emails from last fall and winter in which Harth, who is now a makeup artist in New York, sends warm wishes and pleads for jobs doing his hair and makeup. “I am definitely Team Trump,” she emailed the campaign a year ago, and at a Trump event in January she was ushered backstage to see him.

I asked her: If he traumatized and cheated you, why email his aides and meet him?

“I thought I was making nice, maybe they’d call me for makeup, maybe I could get some kind of work out of the dude,” Harth told me. “But it was not well thought out. It came back to bite me, and I look like a fool.”

Talking to Harth and Houraney, and reviewing the lawsuits and depositions from the time, convinced me that they’re telling the truth. It helps that many others have testified about Trump behavior that matches elements of the story — the stiffing of business partners, the sexual predation — and that he himself has promoted his own boorishness.

“He’s all about him,” Harth says, summing up what she learned about the man who may be our next president. “He’s a con artist.”

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June 15, 2017 at 3:54 PM

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