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In her 2019 memoir, What Do We Need Men For?, E. Jean Carroll accused Donald Trump of rape, in a Bergdorf’s dressing room in the mid-1990s. After the president denied ever meeting her and dismissed her story as a Democratic plot, she sued him for defamation. Carroll was not, of course, the first woman to say that Trump had sexually harassed or assaulted her, but unlike so many other powerful men, the president has remained unscathed by the #MeToo reckoning. So in the run-up to the November 3 election, Carroll is interviewing other women who alleged that Trump suddenly and without consent “moved on” them, to cite his locution in the Access Hollywood tape. “I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them, it’s like a magnet … And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy.”
Carroll’s lawsuit took a dramatic turn two weeks ago, when the Justice Department intervened in an attempt to take over the president’s defense, asserting that Trump was acting in his official capacity when he claimed not to know Carroll. Meanwhile, a White House spokesperson denied all of the women’s allegations, calling them “false statements” that had been “thoroughly litigated and rejected by the American people.” Read Parts 1, 2, and 3 here.
You are looking at slightly out-of-focus 2016 images taken from a 15-second video of the then–Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump, and a campaign staffer, Alva Johnson. Before people see the tape, Trump attorneys say that their client does not kiss Alva. After the tape is released, the lawyers say that what Trump is doing to Alva is an “interaction,” a word they will employ in pleadings before the judge presiding over the federal suit in which Alva claims that Trump “kisses her without her consent.”
Reader, we will now leave the video so we can learn who kisses whom, who sues whom, and why this kind of fight with a man is not new for Alva.
“What does Trump smell like?”
“I don’t know.”
“When he comes in at you.”
“Stop and think.”
Alva lowers her eyes and tries to smell Trump in her mind’s nostril. “Sweat—maybe?” Alva’s nose ring quivers like a damselfly. “Makeup? Cosmetics? It’s a cramped RV and it’s raining, and people are wet, and there are a bunch of guys who’ve been there since 6 o’clock in the morning setting up chairs and tables and so I—really—just—freeze.”
Alva looks like a choir girl but laughs with the sound of a marching band. “Huuh-eh-huuh-huuh-huuh-huuh-huuh!”
I’ve been told by some readers of Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series that they are surprised that we Trump accusers talk to each other like this. I think it is not how Trump accusers talk; I think it is how women talk. Which is to say that I offer Alva various animals and vegetables that Trump might smell like.
“No, no, no,” Alva replies. “I was holding my breath.”
“Are you the only Black woman Trump’s ever kissed?”
Alva Johnson, the former director of administrative operations for the Florida Trump campaign, regards me slyly through Zoom. She is a marvel, a Black woman from Alabama, a demure nonconformist, a former big-time college athlete, listed as 6 feet tall in the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s sports pages (“I’m really 5 foot 9, but of course, as a hitter in volleyball, they fudge our heights for intimidation”), slim as a lettuce leaf, with a laugh amounting to genius.
“No, I’m not,” Alva says. “Trump dated a Black woman.”
“You don’t know that?”
This summer, before I talk to Alva, I visit Jill Harth, the makeup artist. We are in Jill’s boudoir, and the two of us are going through her giant basket of Trump photos. While Jill is flinging out all over the bed smiling photos of our current president, the man she sued in 1997 for “groping her intimate private parts” (she later withdrew the suit), she tells me a strange story about her American Dream Calendar Girls, a witty beauty pageant she created in the mid-’90s. I am examining a photo of Trump with his arms around a group of Jill’s Calendar Girls, each one whiter than a boiled egg, when Jill mentions something about Trump constantly wanting to “help pick the girls.”
“He did not even want to look at photos of women of color,” she says.
I am not certain I heard her correctly. “What did Trump say exactly, Jill?”
“He said, ‘No! No! No! I don’t want to see any Black girls!’” (Trump has denied that he ever excluded Black women from such events.)
So, reader, when Alva Johnson says that Trump was head over heels for a Black woman, I need to prevent myself from sagging to my knees in astonishment. Yes, Alva assures me, “He dated a Black woman. Long term. For a couple of years.”
“No!” I cry.
“Listen, E. Jean,” Alva says, taking in breath, “if you really want to loosen up the racists from Trump’s base”—a tuba aria of chuckles—“if you want the white supremacists to understand that he is not their friend, I mean, he dog-whistles, but … he dated a Black woman.”
Even I, a chick so white that I look like I’ve been hit with a banana-cream pie, manage to “loosen up” the supremacists when a photo of Trump and me in the company of our ex-spouses shoots around the globe. My ex-husband is Black. The supremacists write emails to enlighten me as to the character of their godlike leader, who “would never touch a woman who has been with a Black man.” You understand, reader, that when the supremacists say Trump would never touch a woman who has been with a Black man, the supremacists do not say “touch,” nor “woman,” nor “been with,” nor “Black man.” I cannot give you the precise language—because their emails are not fit for human eyes—but I can tell you that they write such fascinating descriptions of my vagina that you might think you’re reading about a dead carp that has been left out in the sun and gone bad.
Actually, Alva tells me, Prince has a song about Trump’s relationship with a Black woman. “Yeah, it’s called ‘Trump,’ or ‘Trump’s Girlfriend,’ or something.”
The song is a hilarious tip of Prince’s hat to Trump titled “Donald Trump (Black Version),” though it’s not actually about Trump’s relationship with a Black woman, but a guy named Morris’s. Kara Young, the daughter of a Black mother and a white father, begins dating Trump around 1997, seven years after Prince writes the song; and thus it is that Alva, believing that “Trump can’t be racist,” what with the “hundred rap songs about him” and because, “well, he dated a Black woman,” and assuming that “Trump is never going to win”—thus it is, reader, that Ms. Alva Mahaffey, born into a large Birmingham family of Black professionals (her mother, Ammie Savage, is a teacher of French, Spanish, and English; her stepdad, Jacob Savage, is a microbiologist); thus it is that little Alva, who grows up listening to her grandmother and aunts talking about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed the four little girls, about the police siccing dogs on the protesters in Kelly Ingram Park, and about how they themselves brought food to Dr. King in the Birmingham jail; thus it is that Alva, a cheerleader, a member of the church choir, Alva, who eventually becomes a human-resources professional and founds her own event-planning company, Alva, who always votes Democrat, Alva, who hosts trainings for Obama-campaign volunteers in her home in 2008, Alva, who carries Hillary Clinton’s book Living History around with her; thus it is that Alva decides to join the campaign staff of Donald Trump.
Naturally, Trump looking her up and down like an Airedale eyeing a rump roast as she walks toward him at a 2015 campaign rally in Birmingham, and then exclaiming, “Oh! Beautiful! Beautiful! Fantastic!” nearly deters the ever-professional Alva from joining his campaign.
“But when I start working for him,” Alva says, “there are 17 other candidates in the race! There’s no way—no one expects Trump to become the Republican nominee. I mean, you have Ted Cruz. You have Marco Rubio. You have—”
“Jeb Bush,” I say, raising my head from my desk, where I have been rolling it back and forth in amazement at Alva’s awful miscalculation. Of course, she wasn’t the only one.
“I do it to get work experience on a political campaign. I do it to network. And I know I can throw a rally.”
Boy, does Alva know how to throw a rally! Two days before Super Tuesday, 32,000 people show up at her event in Madison, Alabama. Jeff Sessions becomes the first sitting U.S. senator to endorse Trump, bestowing a blessing of legitimacy upon the popinjay from New York.
Alva, who thinks she is just going to grow her event-planning business in Alabama, receives a phone call after the rally. “They ask me if I can pack my bags and go to Missouri,” says Alva, who has the title of director of outreach and coalitions. “It sounds like a good opportunity. There are still a lot of candidates in the race, and so I talk with my family, make sure my four kids are taken care of, and I go to Missouri. Then it’s just kind of traveling from state to state to state. I’m in a bubble. I’m out with the voters and supporters, or with people who are on the fence, or coming up with concepts, or rounding up people to go knock on doors. It’s a bunch of lonely people out in this world, okay? It’s a bunch of lonely people who want to feel heard, and they are vulnerable. Not the white supremacists. Not those people, but the vulnerable people who are put in that echo chamber, where bad information about Trump is ‘fake news’ and ‘can’t be true.’”
Alva is eventually promoted to director of operations for Florida, and runs the state’s three “mobile offices.” Showing the extraordinary stamina that seems to be required of campaign women, especially Black women—in this case, Alva doesn’t encounter a single other Black woman on the road trying to elect Trump—Alva commits herself to taking the three RVs to every county in Florida, which is how she arrives in Tampa with the Donald’s mug decorating her vehicle and his pudgy self heading toward her.
“What are you wearing, Alva?” I ask.
“A white T-shirt. With the word Trump in red and the blue logo: Make America Great Again. And I’ve got a pair of cute jeans, and heels. I always wear heels. Everyone always laughs, because I wear heels everywhere. So I am wearing burgundy-colored Nine West closed-toe pumps—I love those pumps—and my jeans are kind of tapered, but they, you know, are not tight or anything—”
Alva interrupts herself, and looks into the Zoom screen, arching her eyebrows in the manner of every woman in the world.
“It’s funny I have to say that. Because as women, we’re kind of conditioned to say, ‘I’m not showing this, I wasn’t showing that.’ So I am just wearing some blue jeans, my T-shirt, heels, and, as it is raining, a baseball cap.”
Prince has another song.
U don’t have 2 be rich
2 be my girl
U don’t have 2 be cool
2 rule my world
Ain’t no particular sign I’m more compatible with
I just want your extra time and your
“Trump walks into the RV,” Alva says. It is August 24, 2016. “And he’s like, ‘Wow! This is great!’ I’ve made sure we have volunteers and supporters there making him feel welcome, and I’m in the back making certain that people get to meet him—‘Okay, did you get his autograph? Good! Come around this way!’ So I’m directing traffic, and I can see him looking at me. I’m at work. I am in front of people I manage and who have to listen to what I tell them to do. They must take me seriously as a woman. And it’s even more complicated because I’m a Black woman. I don’t want any blurred lines. I don’t want any questions about my professionalism.”
Trump is about to exit when he pauses in front of Alva.
“He grabs me and holds my arms at my sides. People don’t seem to register that this is what is happening to me. I’m as stiff as a board. And he kisses me. He tries to kiss me on the lips, but I turn my head.
“I’m at work! He’s my boss! There are other women there. He doesn’t do this to anyone but me. I don’t show emotion. I just, you know, I just keep trekking through. The story ‘Alva got a kiss from the boss’ travels so fast, it beats me to Sarasota. And I remember when I call my parents that night and tell them what happens, I start crying. I remember pulling over in a Trader Joe’s parking lot and crying. They say, ‘Why are you crying?’ And I laugh and say, ‘I don’t know why I’m crying.’ Then I feel stupid for crying. But it is something that triggers me when I’m telling the story. And it is something I feel even to this day: I know that what happened is not right. It’s without my permission.”
Alva cries on the phone because long ago, when she was in fourth grade, after her little sister, Aundria Mahaffey, died of leukemia, Alva’s mother—who is divorced from Alva’s dad, grieving her child, and trying to make ends meet on a teacher’s salary—turns to a teenage friend of the family to babysit Alva. Alva’s mom is always careful. She believes she is putting her daughter in the safest and most nurturing place. “I am 9 years old,” Alva says, “and the guy is a jock who chases me around for hours while I hide, cry, and try to fight him off when he finds me. I squeeze under the bed, and he pulls me out by my legs. Even when he goes away to college, he’ll pick me up as a ‘big brother’ and will literally park his car and rape me as I try to fight him off. I am 11 when he goes off to school. This continues until I am 13, and he is a junior in college and finally has a steady girlfriend.” (He denies Alva’s allegations.)
“When we are both adults, he sends me a friend request on Facebook. But I am grown up now. I’m a woman and I’m no longer hiding. I sent him a private message on Facebook about what he did to me. You know what he replies? He replies with a sad-face emoji.”
“Take the weekend off! Rejuvenate! Get rested! And Monday, we’re all going to come back, and it’s going to be a brand-new day!”
The Florida campaign director is delivering this pep talk to the state’s Trump-for-president staff during a dinner meeting at a seafood restaurant in Sarasota. Alva is thinking, We’re four weeks away from the election, and you want us to rest? She elbows the guy next to her—what’s going on?
And he is like, You know, the thing today.
And Alva is like, What thing today?
And he says, Well, there’s, you know, the video.
And Alva is like, What video?
So she Googles it, and it’s this Access Hollywood tape, and she can’t hear it, but she is looking at the words running underneath, “I just start kissing them … I don’t even wait . . . When you’re a star, they let you do it,” and Alva pushes back her chair, stands up, drops her napkin on the table, and tells her partner, who is visiting from Alabama (and who is not a fan of Trump’s), that they are leaving. “Good, I’m ready to leave anyway,” he replies, and the two of them walk out, get in their rental car, and close the door. At which point Alva restarts the video and starts to scream: “That’s what Trump did to me! I knew it! I knew it! I knew I wasn’t overreacting!”
She never goes back. She consults with a Fort Lauderdale lawyer, Adam Horowitz, quits the campaign on his advice; and, figuring why throw the baby out with the bathwater, later submits applications for several positions with the new administration. “I earned this opportunity through my hard work on the campaign,” Alva says. “Why should I be punished for his actions?” In 2017 she hires Hassan Zavareei, a respected Washington, D.C., litigator; and, viewing the case as a former HR professional who would “persuade any company she worked for to get rid of a man like Trump because of his pattern of allegations,” sues Trump in February 2019 for kissing her without her consent and for paying her less than her white male counterparts.
In June 2019, William F. Jung, a Trump-appointed federal judge, dismisses the case, on the grounds that it was improperly framed as a political statement, though he says Alva can refile in a streamlined suit alleging “simple battery” for the kiss and wage discrimination. About a month later, Trump’s lawyer Charles Harder submits the video of the “interaction.” Alva remembers turning her head to avoid Trump’s lips, and Trump holding her more forcibly than the video shows; Zavareei submits to the court an independent forensic report concluding that the video might have been doctored, and asks to reopen discovery to obtain the original. The judge denies the motion, and Alva drops the suit in September 2019.
Alva’s rakish earrings swing back and forth.
“Well?” I say, sucking on the end of my Sharpie.
“Well,” Alva says, with her sideways smile. “It’s embarrassing being a Black woman who worked for Trump, I can tell you that much!
“That’s the big one for me,” she says. “I disappointed a lot of people. Not just Black people, but Black and white. But specifically Black people. I expected people to give me the Heisman arm.” She laughs and throws out her arm. “It’s like that stiff-arm from the Heisman Trophy.”
The Trump campaign is suing Alva for violating the nondisclosure agreement that she signed as a condition for working for Donald J. Trump for President Inc. For good measure, the campaign’s lawyers are also asking that Alva pay its legal fees (yet to be determined). Which is rich, considering that on the deadline for Trump to appeal the state court’s ruling requiring him to participate in discovery in my own lawsuit, the White House arranges for Attorney General Bill Barr and the 113,000-member Department of Justice to defend him, thereby making Alva pay for his defense in my suit with her tax dollars (and yours too, reader).
But Trump can’t do much to Alva. She doesn’t have any money, she tells me. She is busy writing, networking, and waiting for the end of “the nightmare that is this presidency,” but alas, there’s nothing for old Trump to sue for, beg for, or con her out of.
“So, Alva,” I say, after we both pour ourselves a cocktail. “If you could go back in time, what do you wish had happened when Trump came waddling up to you in that RV?”
“My instinct?” Alva says, sipping her dry rosé on ice. “I’d like to punch him. I mean, I’m pretty strong. He’s 6 foot 3 or something, but I probably would be more aggressive. I would probably push him off me. I would put my finger in his face and tell him, ‘Don’t you ever put your hands on me.’ I probably would tell him that he’s a future eunuch if he makes one more move.”
“You’re Division I, woman!” I cry, growing more buoyant by the second.
“As a kid I had to fight a dude off of me, so I always know it’s easier for me to get on top than to be pinned down.”
“And what if Trump comes at you again?”
“I would probably knee him,” Alva says.
Behind her on the pale butter-yellow wall is a deer’s head with a 14-point rack of antlers, a buck, mounted above the fireplace.
“And what would Trump do next?” I ask.
Alva rocks back, closes her eyes, and out comes the whole brass section of laughter.
“I’m afraid that Trump would like it.”