The details change almost daily, but the rumor won’t die: A credible news organization is preparing to unmask at least 20 lawmakers in both parties for sexual misconduct. Speculation about this theoretical megastory is spreading like wildfire across Congress and beyond, a lurking bad-press boogeyman that’s always described as on the verge of going public. And it’s far from the only worry that’s seeped into the collective psyche of Capitol Hill, where members and aides are now perpetually bracing for the next allegation to drop.Washington is also gripped by uncertainty over whether the nationwide awakening to workplace misconduct might be manipulated into a political weapon. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) went to law enforcement after being targeted last week by a forged harassment complaint against him, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) last month parried a false accusation of misconduct posted on Twitter. Lawmakers and aides are consumed by one simple question: Who’s next? That and, in this turbocharged news cycle of the Trump presidency, can actual misdeeds be distinguished from false smears? “You want to have a welcome environment to report abuse — you don’t want to deter victims,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said in an interview. “But you’ve got to have enough due process and scrutiny to make sure it’s accurate.” “I think this environment is pretty crazy right now,” Graham added, and “what happened to Sen. Schumer is a concern to a lot of us.” Just this month, five members of Congress have been forced to resign or retire after being accused of sexual misconduct: Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.), Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Blake Farenthold (R-Texas). Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) also called it quits after graphic text messages sent by him were posted online. The raft of accusations and departures is prompting uncomfortable conversations all over the Capitol. Aides in one Democrat’s office were summoned recently to a meeting organized by a fellow staffer and asked whether they’d ever heard of an accusation against their boss, according to a source in the room. Other press secretaries have asked their bosses about any personal skeletons, wanting to unearth possible sexual land mines before they detonate in the media.The pervasive apprehension that’s taken hold risks adversely affecting some women’s careers. One Republican aide told POLITICO that she is advising members not to be alone with any women — whether they’re female staffers or female reporters.
“Members who have high-profile elections coming up or just are really out front on a particular issue are now feeling like they may be targets,” said Kristin Nicholson, a veteran Democratic chief of staff who last month organized a letter signed by more than 1,500 former aides urging an overhaul of Congress’ harassment policies.“The idea that something like that [Schumer forgery] could potentially get through and cause some harm before it’s discounted is causing some fear,” Nicholson said. Beyond the hoaxes targeting Schumer and Blumenthal, apparently legitimate misconduct claims have become tinged with suspicion about possible political motivations. A Twitter account linked to GOP political consultant Roger Stone, a frequent confidant of President Donald Trump, raised eyebrows last month by forecasting the first harassment allegation against Sen. Al Franken before it emerged. Stone later denied any advance knowledge of the first in a series of stories that ultimately pushed Franken to resign. Two of the accusations came from self-described Democrats. Still, that hasn’t stopped some supporters of the popular Minnesota Democrat from continuing to whisper about a broader conservative campaign to topple Franken. The false sexual misconduct allegation that hit Blumenthal gained momentum on Twitter among some conservatives before The Daily Beast debunked it. Asked last week about the incident, Blumenthal said: “What most concerns me about that hoax and others like it is that it degrades the courageous and brave women and men who come forward to complain of sexual harassment and assault.” The attempted smearing of Schumer took the form of a forged court complaint shopped around to reporters working on sexual harassment stories. The false complaint was flagged on social media by pro-Trump figures before the New York Democrat’s asked the Capitol Police to investigate. Media outlets that received a copy of the forged Schumer complaint reported only on the attempted hoax, just as The Washington Post exposed a woman who leveled false sexual accusations against Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore last month at the behest of a conservative organization known as Project Veritas. But lawmakers and aides have no guarantee, beyond media organizations’ diligence, that false allegations won’t slip through. “Sadly, it looks like this may be something we have to look at” in preparing candidates for next year’s elections, said Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), the head of Senate Democrats’ campaign committee for next year’s midterms. Van Hollen underscored, however, “We obviously need to hold people accountable where there are legitimate claims.” What no one on Capitol Hill knows for sure is where legitimacy begins and ends. Part of the reason that the rumor about 20 or more lawmakers being unmasked as sexual harassers has proved so durable is that, after the recent wave of resignations, it feels both shocking and believable The speculation about a harassment story started more than a month ago, even before Conyers became the first lawmaker connected to harassment allegations. Sometimes POLITICO is named as the media outlet behind the story, but CNN and The New York Times are occasionally called the central players in the speculation.By last week, The Washington Post was the organization, and the number of members had grown more grandiose. “I am hearing The Post has a list of 40-50, evenly split between the parties, that have had sexual harassment charges,” one lobbyist texted POLITICO. Since the speculation began, members and aides from both parties in recent weeks have buttonholed reporters to try to gauge what they’re working on regarding sexual harassment — and, perhaps, to put their own minds at ease that no one is dogging them. In the past week alone, at least four lawmakers have asked POLITICO whether the bombshell story is real. The atmosphere in Congress has reached the point that one Republican leadership staffer told POLITICO she worries that members might think the worst if they’re called into Speaker Paul Ryan’s office. “It’s this way not just in Congress, but in all kinds of industries: men thinking back on the kind of behaviors they didn’t think about at the time but might be construed as harassment or inappropriate,” said Nicholson, the veteran Democrat who now serves as director of the Government Affairs Institute at Georgetown University. “It’s hitting everyone, even people who are not bad actors, because you just have no idea.”