An Open Letter to Donald Trump's Sex Harassment Victims

Donald Trump has demeaned and sexually harassed women openly for years. These kinds of behaviors don't just end on their own nor has Trump suffered any consequences that might deter future sex offenses. Those two things combined almost guarantee that there are other victims.
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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump autographs a supporter's chest following his speech at a campaign rally at Prince William County Fair Grounds Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015, in Manassas, Va. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump autographs a supporter's chest following his speech at a campaign rally at Prince William County Fair Grounds Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015, in Manassas, Va. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

"Only [Donald] Trump could describe democracy in a way that sounds like he's sexually harassing it." -- Trevor Noah, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, February 22, 2016

Much has been written recently about Donald Trump's refusal to disavow the KKK and its former Grand Wizard David Duke; about Trump's mocking of presidential candidate Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, for quenching his thirst during a Republican rebuttal to the State of the Union speech three years ago; about Trump directing his followers to raise their right arms in a Hitler-like salute and to vow to vote for him; and about how rich, powerful and smart Trump thinks he is.

One important story, though, has drawn surprisingly little attention during this presidential campaign: Donald Trump's illegal sexual harassment of women.

On January 31, 2016, the Washington Post reported that a 26-year-old Iowa campaign worker filed a complaint with the Davenport Civil Rights Commission claiming that when she and another female coworker met Trump last summer, he looked them over and said "You guys could do a lot of damage," implying that their physical appearances could be very helpful to his campaign.

Of course, Trump denies it. He claims he's never used the phrase complainant Elizabeth Davidson said he did. He further points out that he could have said much worse. "[Y]ou and I have both heard a lot worse phrases than that, but that one is not in my vocabulary," he told the Post reporter. Then he did what he always does when called out by the press: He attacked the media, calling the New York Times "a disgrace" for running the story the day before the Iowa caucuses.

Regardless of his denials, you can be virtually certain he did it, because he has demeaned and sexually harassed women openly for years. These kinds of behaviors don't just end on their own nor has Trump suffered any consequences that might deter future sex offenses. Those two things combined almost guarantee that there are other victims of whom we are simply unaware.

"I worry that the media's emphasis on Trump's racism will obscure his strong record of misogyny." -- Andy Borowitz, New York Times Columnist, February 28, 2016

"Sex harassment" is most readily defined in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's federal guidelines that were substantially updated in 1991. Those guidelines explain that "sex harassment" is

[u]nwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature... when (1) submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual's employment, (2) submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting such individual, or (3) such conduct has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual's work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.

Simply, quid pro quo sex harassment is sexual conduct in the workplace that requires submission as a condition of employment or that is rewarded or punished. "Hostile work environment harassment" is the effect that same sexual conduct has on other employees outside of the quid pro quo exchange. You don't have to look far to see that Donald Trump is guilty of both kinds.

Remember when Trump was nothing more than a self-proclaimed business mogul who became a reality-TV star? Back when The Apprentice first aired in the winter and spring of 2004, as a purported talent search for a person to head one of Trump's companies? The contestants were "hired" with a one-year contract, a starting annual salary of $250,000 and paid living expenses to dwell in a Trump-style commune. Trump's greatest joy came when he was able to crush his contestants' hopes and dreams by uttering his fateful catch phrase "You're fired!" Hired. Fired. Salary. Expenses. Employer control over all aspects of their production. These contestants were by definition Donald Trump's employees.

In his 2004 book How to Get Rich, Trump wrote about the enormous success of The Apprentice. "All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me -- consciously or unconsciously. That's to be expected..." And "[i]t's certainly not groundbreaking news that the early victories by the women on The Apprentice were, to a very large extent, dependent on their sex appeal." In 2013, he even told a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice All Stars, after she kneeled in subjugation and begged not to be fired, "[i]t must be a pretty picture. You dropping to your knees."

But was Trump's introduction of sexual elements into the workplace "unwelcome?" Unless the actions are unwelcome or offensive, there is no sex harassment, even if there is sexual conduct. One can imagine that for some women who might want to get ahead using their physical attractiveness, it's possible that Trump's sexual innuendo and expectations were welcome. It played to those women's sexual power. For everyone else, not so much.

It's extremely likely that, in order to be considered for the show, the contestants were required to sign legal waivers ensuring that Trump could treat them however illegally he wanted and they would be prohibited from suing. While those contractual waivers would eliminate the possibility of a monetary consequence for his illegal actions, the actions are illegal nonetheless. Trump created a work environment for his employees that made sexual conduct and expectations part of the job (quid pro quo harassment) and interfered with the contractual expectations of the employees who did not benefit from the sexual attention (hostile work environment harassment).

But for every victim Trump has sexually harassed openly -- like on his TV shows and this lawsuit for sexual assault of a business colleague in 1992-there are probably dozens he has harassed behind the scenes who have not yet come out publicly.

One of many things I learned from personal experience after the forced resignation of San Diego Mayor Bob Filner for sexually harassing his employees was that there were many, many more women who suffered his loathsome sexual pursuits but who never came forward publicly. Filner was elected mayor of America's seventh largest city in November 2012. By the time he resigned his office nine months later, almost 20 women-including three city employees and volunteers under his direct and indirect supervision-had publicly revealed Filner's offensive sexual behaviors. Ten women claimed he had touched them inappropriately, from lingering hands on the knee, pulling them too close and stroking a cheek to unabashedly groping their butts. Three women were isolated -- one in the corner of a restaurant booth -- so he could try to force kisses on them. Seven complained that he had repeatedly requested dates and made other inappropriate comments, telling one woman that he had fallen in love with her during their only meeting at a public event.

Despite those numbers, I found that virtually every woman I talked with had a "Bob Filner story" that continued to affect them and the men in their lives long after. These women included high-profile media personalities, elected officials and public leaders, among others. While Filner never harassed me, as his chief of staff, I endured a different nightmare fighting off his rage-aholism and his sexual pursuit of his executive assistant virtually every day he came in the office. It has taken me years to put that experience into perspective, which then morphed into a book on sexual abuse of power in our highest political offices.

So where are the other Trump women? I'm referring to the women who work behind the scenes in Trump's organizations who are demeaned and sexually harassed every day. The women who don't come out and complain publicly about his regular misogyny in the workplace. And the women and men who feel that sexual tension in Trump's workplace, knowing that his "favorites" got where they are in some part as a result of traits and actions with which the other victims simply can't -- or won't -- compete.

If we learned anything from the Filner scandal in San Diego, it is this: Creeps like Trump and Filner are not worthy of our highest elected offices. They do not represent who we are as a people. Despite this, however, the voters cannot make it a voting issue unless the people who have been affected work up the courage to come forward.

Consider this an open invitation.

To the women who suffer at the hands of Trump the Demagogue, I urge you to come out and tell your truth. No woman or man deserves to be demeaned or objectified in her or his workplace. Even if you otherwise enjoy your job or the benefits it brings, you deserve better. The Constitution says you deserve to work in an environment free of discrimination and exploitative behavior.

Admitted, going public with your story is hard, but it is a decision you will not likely regret. Whereas I can assure you, based on personal experience, that if you continue working for Trump and hiding your truth, it will hurt you and you might never be the same.

I also learned that sometimes a victim is not willing to come out for his or her own benefit, but if a greater good can be served by it, they are more inclined to look beyond their personal risks toward the greater good. In that vein, the American people need to know what you have experienced before they vote in the primaries and caucuses and certainly before they vote in November. Bob Filner's actions cost San Diego taxpayers $4 million to hold a special election to replace him and exposed them to millions of dollars in potential liability for the injuries he inflicted on his victims, let alone the national and international ridicule the city suffered. As damaging as this was at the municipal mayoral level, imagine the impacts magnified if a similar story were to play out at the presidential level.

Even worse, by not coming out before his election, the 16 women whom he offended prior to becoming mayor paved the way for three more victims to suffer his atrocious behaviors after he took the Mayor's Office. This is not an issue of blame. No one should blame a victim of sex abuse, assault or harassment. It is just to say that, if Trump's other victims -- and I am confident there are other victims -- come forward now, they can have a definite and positive impact on women and our country by ensuring this man does not become president of the United States. The other women can act to ensure that Trump is not given such a powerful position from which he can sexually discriminate or harass other woman. As importantly, they can send him an unequivocal message that his misogyny is not acceptable in modern society.

To those women I say: Stand up. Lean in. Be heard.


In addition to being Bob Filner's former female chief of staff, Lee Burdick is a successful lawyer, political strategist, crisis manager and community leader. She is also author of Bob Filner's Monster: Inside the Unraveling of an American Mayor and What We Can Learn from It (published Feb. 8, 2016). Available on and Barnes & Noble as a NOOK eBook.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

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