Something is brewing on Capitol Hill that has an eerie resemblance to another set of events that happened just about 12 years ago as Washington hurtled toward the 2006 midterm election. In September 2006, ABC News first reported that Congressman Mark Foley (R-FL) had exchanged sexually explicit text messages with underage male congressional pages. Later it was reported that after turning 18 at least two pages had had sexual encounters with Foley. Foley resigned from Congress and entered an alcohol rehabilitation program on October 2nd. Later Foley revealed that he had himself been molested years earlier as a 13-year-old altar boy by a priest named Anthony Mercieca — claims Mercieca appeared to confirm in an interview with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune a week later.
At the time, Foley’s scandal did not affect him alone. Despite initial denials, multiple members of the House GOP leadership knew at least some details of the scandal in 2005 and possibly as early as 2003 but apparently took no action. Speaker Denny Hastert (R-IL) was widely criticized for apparently sitting on the allegations and not taking action. Hastert’s confusing inaction looked more sinister when it was revealed in 2015 that Hastert had sexually abused high school aged boys when he was a teacher and wrestling coach at Yorkville High School decades earlier.
At the time and since many have claimed that the Foley Scandal helped catalyze the Democratic wave that swept the Republicans from power two months later. This is likely wrong. There was abundant evidence that Republicans would face an electoral reckoning in the 2006 midterm election. But it was difficult for many to believe that the GOP majorities, which had ruled Capitol Hill for a dozen years, could be driven from power. Indeed, only a year earlier a host of analysts had argued that the 2002 and 2004 elections heralded a permanent Republican majority built on ideology, money and “war on terror” politics. My own read is that Foley scandal provided a retrospective explanation for many who’d been skeptical of a Democratic midterm wave to explain why the wave actually did come to pass.
However that may be, even though Foley’s actions were mainly about him, the spectacle cast the entire institution in a dark and sclerotic light. Republicans were apparently so confident in their unbreakable hold on power that they not only couldn’t be bothered to protect the minors entrusted to their care, they did not even take seriously the potential political fallout of failing to do so.
All of which brings us to the current case of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who was first elected to Congress from Ohio’s 12th District in 2006. On July 3rd, NBC News first reported that Jordan had turned a blind eye to sexual abuse by a now deceased team doctor, Richard Strauss. The initial report had three former wrestlers saying that Jordan had known about Strauss’s behavior when he was an assistant coach from 1986 to 1994. College wrestler Dunyasha Yetts said he spoke to Jordan directly.
“I remember I had a thumb injury and went into Strauss’ office and he started pulling down my wrestling shorts. I’m like, what the f— are you doing? And I went out and told Russ and Jim what happened. I was not having it. They went in and talked to Strauss … For God’s sake, Strauss’s locker was right next to Jordan’s and Jordan even said he’d kill him if he tried anything with him.”
Over the last week, each day has brought forward another witness who has told some version of the same story. That Dr. Strauss’s abuse was well known, Jordan knew about it and yet did nothing. A weekend Politico report painted an almost incredible picture of a program in which grown men routinely congregated to watch the wrestling team shower in the nude, masturbated while doing so and had sex in the university gymnasium after watching the wrestling team. Today CNN reported what is either the 8th or 9th witness to come forward with the same story. The unnamed former wrestler says that he approached Jordan directly after Strauss fondled his testicles only to have him “snicker” and walk away.
One of these men could be lying or misremembering. It’s all but impossible that so many could come forward with essentially the same story if it weren’t in fact true. And yet, Jordan has consistently and vociferously denied all the accounts, calling all nine men liars. On Friday, Jordan appeared to hint at a possible fallback defense, telling Fox News’ Bret Baier that “conversations in a locker room are a lot different than allegations of abuse or reported abuse to us,”seems to imply that while he may have heard locker room gossip no student had ever filed a formal complaint.
VERY TELLING. Jordan repeatedly notes this distinction: "Conversations in a locker room are a lot different than allegations of abuse or reported abuse to us." Seems to be falling back on *formal accusations*, just discussed and common knowledge. pic.twitter.com/X3SPSLw8j2
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) July 6, 2018
When Baier pressed Jordan on whether he had, in fact, heard that kind of gossip, Jordan said no.
Jordan repeated this distinction between 'locker room talk' and a formal complaint. Bret Baier caught and pressed him about whether he heard things in locker room talk. Jordan denies it. pic.twitter.com/Qi3v80KSMg
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) July 6, 2018
It seems quite possible that Jordan could have weathered the storm and put the story behind him if on the first reports he would have said some version of this: “I did hear stories about Dr. Strauss and I didn’t take them as seriously as I should. I was much younger. But I failed those kids and I deeply regret it.” To be clear, no one has accused Jordan of any inappropriate or abusive behavior. It seems clear that a number of adults, maybe a large number of adults, knew about the behavior and took no action, just like Jordan. Whether or not that hypothetical statement would be enough for you, it might have been enough to end the story for Jordan – at least if there is no more direct evidence of students coming to Jordan for help.
But that ship has sailed. Jordan has repeatedly and emphatically denied everything. He’s called all the accusers liars, even as it becomes more and more obvious that Jordan is lying.
Jordan is the founder of the so-called House Freedom Caucus, the far-right House GOP pressure group which has been most aggressive in supporting Donald Trump. Mark Meadows who now chairs the group has been steadfast in defending Jordan over the past week and has pressed fellow Freedom Caucus members to do the same. The political contours of the situation only fully became clear to me Tuesday evening when I saw this article from the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call: ‘House Republicans Trust Jim Jordan Did Not Ignore Ohio State Sex Abuse Accusations: Colleagues come to Ohio Republican’s defense, calling him honest, honorable and trustworthy‘
It’s a remarkable article. It starts with testimonials from Kevin McCarthy (“a good and honest man. I believe Jim when he says if faced with charges of abuse, he absolutely would have acted.”) and Steve Scalise (“I have always known Jim Jordan to be honest, and I’m confident he would stand up for his athletes, just like he’s always stood up for what’s right.”) Then there’s Mark Meadows “I have always known Jim Jordan to be a man of the utmost character, honor, and integrity. As the independent investigation is concluded, I’m confident people will learn the truth and it will confirm all he has said about the situation. I’m proud to stand by Jim Jordan and support him 100%.”
The article then builds a tempo with first defenders, more defenders, new defenders all coming forward with increasingly Manchurian Candidate-like testimonials. Rep. Doug Collins: “I trust Jim. Jim says it’s nothing.” Rep. Tom Massie: “I support Jim Jordan. He has tremendous integrity. I have faith in the American people and I believe most recognize a baseless smear campaign they see it. And no, I’m not even a member of the Freedom Caucus.” Rep. Paul Gosar: “These are mere political statements intended to smear a good man.” Rep. Louie Gohmert: “These former wrestlers were adults at the time they claim they were sexually abused [and] waited over 20 years to make these allegations with the willing and very expensive assistance of Perkins Coie, a Washington, DC-based dirty tricks law firm.”
On and on and on.
Later in the evening, The Washington Post reported that an unknown funder has retained the conservative PR firm Shirley & Bannister Public Affairs to mount a crisis communications press campaign on Jordan’s behalf. There’s also a website, registered Monday afternoon: standwithjimjordan.com.
Then the Freedom Caucus announced as a group it’s absolute support for Jordan, “a man of integrity” who they support “100 percent”.
Jim Jordan is a man of integrity, and we believe him and stand with him 100 percent. If he had seen or heard something he would have acted. We continue to support his work in Congress to fight for everyday Americans.
— House Freedom Caucus (@freedomcaucus) July 11, 2018
Perhaps other stories will push Jordan’s from the front pages. Possibly the accounts of the nine separate accusers will somehow, improbably, be shown to be false. Far, far more likely is what now appears obvious: Jordan is lying. His accusers, all of whom tell similar stories, are telling the truth and their number will increase. Richard Strauss and the broader coterie of abusers who seem to have hived around the program are the truly bad actors. Jordan’s apparent wrongdoing was contributory and secondary. But he’s compounded it now, deepened his attachment to this dark chapter, by repeatedly lying about it. He could have made a different decision a week ago. But he didn’t. Now his colleagues, whipped by the powers in the ‘Freedom Caucus’, have bought into his deception and made it their own. None of them have any past complicity in this story. But looking at the facts and certainly seeing that their colleague is lying they have all insisted that he is definitely telling the truth while his accusers are liars.
It will only get worse. The investigations will continue. More information will emerge. Jordan’s lies will become more preposterous. And all of his colleagues, having knowingly vouched for his lies, will be along with him for the ride. Though the specific facts are different, it all bears a striking similarity to the events of 12 years ago: power so seemingly unchallengeable that it fears no backlash and no consequences.