As a longtime Democratic leader in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi has promoted an agenda that champions women’s rights, focusing on legislative issues such as improving work-family balance and narrowing the wage gap. But she missed a big opportunity to speak out against sexual harassment in Congress on Sunday, when Pelosi defended Rep. John Conyers during an interview with Chuck Todd on Meet The Press.
Conyers, a Democratic congressman who has represented Michigan since 1965, has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women who worked for him. The accusations first surfaced on Monday, when BuzzFeed reported that Conyers made repeated “sexual advances to female staff,” and privately settled a wrongful dismissal complaint that a staffer filed against him back in 2015.
Conyers has denied the allegations against him but stepped down as the ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee on Sunday, stating that "my presence as ranking member on the committee would not serve these efforts while the ethics committee investigation is pending."
Since the accusations were first reported, the House Ethics Committee has opened an investigation into the allegations against the congressman. Most Democrats have expressed support for the investigation, including Pelosi, who said earlier this week that there should be "zero tolerance for harassment, discrimination, bullying or abuse in the House."
But Pelosi seemingly backtracked on her statements during her appearance on Meet The Press. When asked by host Chuck Todd what she meant by "zero tolerance," Pelosi deflected the question, instead praising Conyers as an “icon” and casting doubt upon the allegations against him.
Pelosi said that Conyers deserved "due process" in the investigation, and that she believed he would do the right thing — but fell short of saying whether or not the right thing would be to resign. In reference to the women who have accused Conyers of sexual misconduct, the house minority leader said, “I don’t know who they are, do you? They have not really come forward.”
Pelosi’s comments drew swift backlash from critics on both sides of the aisle, who denounced her for protecting her party, rather than treating the allegations as she would for any Republican. Many Democrats have demanded that Roy Moore withdraw from the Alabama Senate race after reports of inappropriate relationships with teen girls, which he has adamantly denied.
FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver said in a tweet that “Democrats have lost the thread on sexual harassment,” noting that “the Conyers claims represent a serious abuse of power ... and Pelosi doesn't see them as a firing offense.”
Huffington Post correspondent Matt Fuller tweeted that Pelosi was wading into dangerous territory by defending Conyers, despite her "supposed political brilliance."
And MSNBC commentator Elise Jordan characterized Pelosi's interview as "a devastating showpiece of our era's bipartisan moral blindness," saying that Democrats have blown their chance to be a leading voice against sexual assault by defending the likes of Conyers.
The minority leader’s comments are of particular concern to women’s rights activists, who find it troubling that Pelosi would take Conyers at his word. Columnist Jessica Valenti expressed concern over Pelosi’s response, drawing parallels between the minority leader’s comments and Trump’s recent dismissal of the Roy Moore allegations because “he denies it.”
Pelosi quickly acted to save face following the Meet The Press interview, announcing that Conyers had agreed to step down, and writing in a statement, "I commend the brave women coming forward."
At this point, it may be too late for Pelosi to recover her reputation. Already, Democrats are having to reckon with accusations that have been made against some of their most popular leaders, including Sen. Al Franken, who has apologized to women who said he groped them.
If the party lets the allegations made against Conyers slide, they will have less room to criticize Republicans for propping up Moore. It's something that Pelosi is surely well aware of, but might have trouble acting on. For now, many think she may be blindsided by the temptation to protect her own political party.