As I listened to James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, tell the Senate Intelligence Committee about his personal meetings and phone calls with President Trump, I was reminded of something: the experience of a woman being harassed by her powerful, predatory boss. There was precisely that sinister air of coercion, of an employee helpless to avoid unsavory contact with an employer who is trying to grab what he wants.
After reading Mr. Comey’s earlier statement, I tweeted about this Wednesday night, and immediately heard from other women who had seen that narrative emerge. How recognizable it was that Mr. Comey was “stunned” to find himself in these potentially compromising positions. His incredulity, mixed with President Trump’s circling attempts to get his way, were poignant. For a woman who has spent a lifetime wrestling with situations where men have power they can abuse, this was disturbingly familiar.
On Jan. 27, Mr. Comey received a last-minute dinner invitation from the president, and then learned it would be “just the two of us.” On Thursday, Mr. Comey revealed that he had had to break a date with his wife in order to dine with Mr. Trump. Already, something about this “setup” made him “uneasy.”
The central business of this intimate dinner was Mr. Trump’s insistence: “I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” Mr. Comey immediately recognized that this was a press for something he did not want to give. He froze: “I didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed.”
That reaction — the choice of stillness, responses calculated to neither encourage nor offend that characterized so many of his dealings with Mr. Trump — is so relatable for any woman. During his testimony, Mr. Comey was asked why he had not responded more robustly, why he had not told Mr. Trump that he, the president, was acting inappropriately or reported his behavior immediately to others in authority.
Mr. Comey expressed regret that he had not been “stronger” about it, but explained that it was all he could do to focus on not saying the wrong thing. In other words, he wanted to avoid granting any favor while avoiding the risk of direct confrontation — a problem so deeply resonant for women.
During that interminable, awkward dinner, Mr. Comey struggled to convince Mr. Trump of the danger of “blurring” boundaries. But Mr. Trump was not deterred and returned to the subject of the loyalty he must have. There you hear the eternal voice of the predatory seducer: the man who knows how hard he can make it for a woman to refuse his needs.
Mr. Comey tried to wriggle out of the trap being set for him. He offered his “honesty,” hoping this would appease his insatiable host. Mr. Trump countered with a demand for “honest loyalty.” Mr. Comey acquiesced. Yet as he documented this “very awkward conversation,” his concession of this phrase troubled him. He hoped he had not been misunderstood by the president.
The victim of sexual harassment is constantly haunted by the idea that she said or did something that gave her persecutor encouragement. Serial harassers, of course, have an intuitive sense of this, and are skilled at manipulating and exploiting it.
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