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What We Can Learn About the Ludicrous Kirsten Gillibrand "Sex Cult" Scandal and What We Can't

Politics Features Kirsten Gillibrand
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The background to this story is pretty bizarre, so let’s get that out of the way first. I think we can do this in ten points.

The Background

1. Kirsten Gillibrand is the junior U.S. Senator from New York and a very likely 2020 presidential candidate.

2. Her father, Doug Rutnik is an attorney and lobbyist.

3. In 2004, Rutnik worked for a company call Nxivm, and Nxivm is an incredibly shady “self-help” company that, when looked at closely, may have seemed like a cult.

4. That’s by 2004 standards, by the way—as Ben-Mathis Lilly pointed out at Slate, Forbes and UPI had already called the place a “cult” and a “pyramid scheme.” Rutnik has no claim to ignorance.

5. He worked with them for a few months in his capacity as a lobbyist for four months, taking in $100,000. Hiring prominent lobbyists was part of the company’s MO, and their roster once included Roger Stone. Per an anonymous source in the NYPost, Rutnik was sued when he left, and had to pay the money back in full and sign a confidentiality agreement.

6. Earlier this week, the founder of Nxivm, Keith Raniere, was arrested by the FBI in Mexico. It’s ugly stuff—not only was he running a virtual cult, but he “financially coerced” and “blackmailed” women into becoming “sex slaves.” He’s charged with sex trafficking, and some of the women were made to get actual brands with his initials on their bodies, and to go on crash diets to conform to his physical preferences. Several celebrities were involved, including the Bronfman daughters and Smallville’s Allison Mack.

7. In true “Pizzagate” fashion, Republicans are trying to make hay of this very tenuous connection to damage Gillibrand. Her no-chance-in-hell Republican opponent in the upcoming 2018 Senate election, Chele Farley, is demanding she answer for her father’s involvement with Nxivum. “For Kirsten Gillibrand, the self-proclaimed #MeToo Senator, to claim ignorance about a notorious sex-slave cult, in her own backyard, is simply hard to believe,” she said.

8. Republican media, knowing a good smear when they see one, has picked up the story in an attempt to give it some traction. The Gillibrand-Nxivm connection may, in fact, seems to have been broken by the NYPost, and then amplified by a conservative propaganda outlet in early March, before Raniere was even arrested.

9. Thus far, Gillibrand’s only response has been through a spokesperson, and that was back in November when the story was first unearthed: “Senator Gillibrand had never heard of this group until she recently read about them in the newspaper. She is glad that federal and state prosecutors have taken action in this case.”

10. Turns out, we could do it in nine points.

What We Can’t Learn From This Story

Writing a defense of Gillibrand in the Washington Post, Helaine Olen makes the obvious and correct point that this is, in part, another absurd conservative witch hunt. This stands to reason—the idea that Gillibrand played any role in Keith Raniere’s bizarre sex slavery circus is absurd on its face, and she shouldn’t have to answer for it. That’s about all there is to say from that angle, but it deserves to be emphasized: Any attempts to connect Gillibrand to Raniere are no more than dirty politics, and by giving them any oxygen, we’re playing into the hands of the lunatic right, who have no ethics and have resorted to the kind of mudslinging that doesn’t even require real mud.

What We Can Learn From This Story

At a certain point in Olen’s defense at WaPo, her argument goes off the rails. Here’s the point where the disastrous leap occurs:

So what’s going on here?

Gillibrand’s attracting attention as a potential 2020 candidate. She has mounted high-profile opposition to President Trump and has voted against his nominees more than 90 percent of the time, the strongest such record in the Senate.

Yet at the same time, it’s no secret that there are many Democrats and liberal pundits who are furious with Gillibrand for being the first senator to call for Al Franken to resign over allegations of unwanted advances.

There are a few things here.

First, okay, if we’re going to talk about Franken: Yes, there were a lot of Democrats who got angry with Gillibrand and progressives for demanding that Franken resign for his sexual assault allegations, and it was horrifying. As I wrote at the time, it seemed like good evidence that certain Dems were no better than the Republicans in Alabama who supported Roy Moore, or the post-Pussygate Trump stalwarts. It was all about winning, morals be damned. I, and presumably Olen, and many others, found this episode deeply dispiriting. And there was definitely something sexist about the criticism falling on Gillibrand’s head from the left.

But what does that have to do with Nxivm? Nothing—as far as I can tell, there are literally zero major liberal or Democratic figures calling on Gillibrand to answer for her father’s connections to Keith Raniere and his pyramid scheme slash sex cult. It’s a fully Republican-engineered campaign, and it has not gained any legitimate traction on the left. Even the one publication that brought up anything slightly critical of Gillibrand in an adjacent context to the Nxivm story—Slate—clarified very early on, in all caps, that the connection to the sex ring was bogus. Olen is building up a strawman here that simply doesn’t exist, and drawing a parallel between two incidents that have different culprits, and no real relation to one another.

So what’s happening with Olen? In her essay, we see the early bloom of a pre-emptive defense that was used so often, and so unsuccessfully, during Hillary Clinton’s campaign—the idea that any criticism of a female political figure is inherently sexist. Look at this passage:

The Slate story claimed that while the junior New York senator promotes herself as a “bold, next-generation progressive,” her father did once represent this group. Slate argued that this highlights the fact that her political career features ties to such establishment figures as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

We’d never want a woman to get involved with people like that!

The sarcasm is thick here, but actually, from a progressive angle, we really, really wouldn’t want a presidential candidate, male or female, to get involved with people like that. This is a subject of intense disagreement between leftists and centrists, and an argument that has been litigated over and over again, but suffice it to say that there are some (including me) who believe that Cuomo and Clinton are fundamentally corrupt, and that even if this corruption doesn’t rise to the odious cultural and economic levels of Trump or the congressional Republicans, they are still tremendously uninspiring political figures who are best left in the dustbin of electoral history. Further, we think the kind of politician who associates with them, or finds too much common cause, is destined to be mistrusted by the electorate because in their heart of hearts, they don’t believe in progressive policy.

In short, despite Olen’s mocking tone, association with Clinton and Cuomo is actually seen by many as a giant red flag.

There are other little clues in Olen’s writing that we’re getting a whitewashed version of things. One is that Rutnik’s work for Nxivm is described as occurring “more than 10 years ago,” which is factually true but also comical in context, as though it happened in the fog of prehistory. Then Olen trots out the classic Gillibrand line, which the future candidate loves to espouse and which we’re going to hear over and over in the coming years: ”[She] has voted against his nominees more than 90 percent of the time, the strongest such record in the Senate.”

In truth, she leads by percentage points over other potential 2020 presidential hopefuls like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker. In the story that Olen linked, there’s a quote from Nathan L. Gonzalez of Inside Election that bears repeating here:

“It’s not a secret that more than a handful of Democratic senators believe they can be a better president than President Trump. But they’ll have to navigate a competitive primary first, and being known as the chief opponent of Trump could be an asset,” Gonzales told Roll Call.

In other words, it’s a tactic, and saying that Gillibrand has “the strongest such record” among her fellow senators is true, but it’s also playing semantics because it comes down not to who hates Trump the most, but who is most willing to vote against a vice-secretary of agriculture in order to stay ahead of her rivals.

So there’s one thing we can learn about this story—in terms of media defense, Gillibrand will be the Hillary Clinton of the coming primary. We’ll see the same ginned up, meaningless talking points repeated by hear allies in the mainstream press, and any hint of criticism will be met with loud accusations of sexism.

And we can also learn about Gillibrand herself. She had nothing to do with Raniere’s sex cult, but it’s not out-of-bounds to look at where she comes from. If she wants to grab the banner of the progressive left and carry it to the democratic nomination, she’ll have to prove it, and it will be an uphill battle. So let’s talk about her dad—Rutnik was, indeed, a lobbyist, and he worked for organizations he knew to be shady, including Nxivm. Her grandmother was a major figure in Democratic machine politics in New York. From this establishment background, Gillibrand went on to defend big tobacco against lawsuits in the mid-90s—even taking two trips to a German lab that questioned the cigarette-cancer connection on behalf of Phillip Morris—and her firm also worked for clients like DuPont and ExxonMobil in combating claims of environmental harm. From this establishment background, Gillibrand went on to establish close ties with Wall Street that included nearly filing an amendment to deregulate derivatives trading AFTER the 2007 crash! In 2012, she was even called a “go-to advocate for the financial services industry.” And from that centrist beginning, Gillibrand now hopes to convince Democratic voters that she’s a True Progressive, and to do so against actual true progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Her past is not irrelevant, nor is her family, and if there’s one more thing we can glean from this story, it’s a small puzzle piece of that biography. For what it’s worth within the larger context, Gillibrand’s dad was willing to take big money to work with a shady self-help firm, and though it’s not “sex cult” bad, it’s not great. And it’s not a stretch to draw a rudimentary line from his work—not just at Nxivm—to Gillibrand’s later work with Big Tobacco and Wall Street. This is not sexist, and it’s not a purity test—it’s an enormous obstacle, and one Gillibrand will have to reconcile before she gets anywhere close to the White House.

Finally, we can learn a little about what a Gillibrand presidential candidacy might look like, and from this vantage, there are uncanny echoes of Hillary Clinton that go way beyond gender and a New York Senate seat. On one hand, you have bogus scandals flying in from the right in an attempt to muddy the waters and eat up media space. On the other, you have strong critiques flying in from the left questioning the candidate’s political past and wondering why it looks so…Republican. And between them stands a solitary figure, bunkered down in the untenable center, hoping to win not on her own scintillating record, but by virtue of a despised opponent.

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