Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand refuses to be intimidated after finding herself on the receiving end of a presidential tweet storm.
The junior senator from New York has been a persistent critic of Donald Trump, calling on him to resign in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations. That has raised the ire of a certain Oval Office occupant, who hit back, dismissing her as a “lightweight” and implying she would “do anything” for campaign contributions.
“Initially, I ignored it,” Gillibrand says. “But I decided it needed to be responded to. I said it was a sexist smear. He’s failed to embarrass me, and he’s failed to silence the millions of women who have come out against him.” →
It may be the opening salvo in a fiercer battle between Trump and Gillibrand. The Democratic lawmaker is widely viewed as a potential presidential candidate in 2020. In an interview with Variety, Gillibrand said she’s focused on her current job, but expressed optimism that Trump’s election is inspiring grassroots resistance and a greater focus on women’s rights.
Why do you think the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements have captured national attention?
It started with the election of President Trump. Right after the election we had the largest women’s march in the history of the United States. Millions of men and women and children all over the globe marched to be heard, and they marched for all sorts of reasons — for reproductive freedom, for Black Lives Matter. They marched for clean air and clear water; they marched for LGBT equality. They wanted the issues that they cared about to be elevated because they disagreed with President Trump. That activism hasn’t stopped. #MeToo became a vibrant movement in this climate. Once some women started talking about how they were raped and assaulted and harassed, it created the possibility for more women to come out. The courage of some inspired the courage of many.
What was it about Trump’s election that motivated people to speak out?
His language is often misogynistic, and he has over a dozen credible allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against him. There’s been no justice, no hearings. That angers people.
Where do you hope the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements go from here?
What’s needed is structural reform. Our work isn’t done until we protect women who work for non-famous bosses and for lower wages, who can’t come forward and name their harasser because they fear losing their job.
I’m working to end forced arbitration clauses. When you sign one of those clauses, if you are sexually harassed or assaulted at work, you’ve given up your constitutional right to a jury trial. If you reach a settlement, you’ve had to sign a nondisclosure agreement that says you can’t even talk about it. You can’t warn other people in your workplace.
I have a bill to end sexual violence in the military. It would change how we adjudicate cases to allow trained military prosecutors to determine whether or not a crime has been committed. I want to change how we deal with sexual assault cases on college campuses to make sure that people take these cases seriously and that they fully investigate them.
New rules about how sexual harassment allegations are handled in Congress were initially in the omnibus spending bill. Why were they stripped from the final legislation?
Apparently it was taken out by the Senate Republican leadership. It begs the question: Who are they trying to protect?
If you are sexually harassed while working for a member of Congress, the process you have to undergo is outrageous. It’s a three-month process with mandatory counseling, mandatory mediation. If your harasser is found responsible, the settlement is paid for by the taxpayer.
Your leadership PAC, Off the Sidelines, encourages women to run for public office. Are you seeing results?
We have 400 women running for Congress right now, which is a record number. Women did very well in recent elections. Strong women candidates are running and winning.
I really value women. I believe we have something of value to contribute to our society and government. Look at the lack of movement in Congress on sexual harassment issues. If you had different people [in Congress] making the decisions, you would have different outcomes. We wouldn’t be wasting time debating whether or not women should have access to contraception.
In the wake of the election there’s been debate about how the Democratic Party should evolve. What do you want the party to stand for?
I believe that our country is stronger when we care about one another. I believe we need to fight for others as much as we fight for our own families and our own kids. I believe there’s right versus wrong in this country and in this world, and I believe that what’s wrong is winning right now. That’s what has to change.
Will you run for president in 2020?
I’m entirely focused on 2018, because I am up for reelection and I would like to continue to be the U.S. senator from New York. I’m spending all my effort trying to earn the votes of my constituents.