Trump Accuser Says She 'Jumped Out' Of Her Skin During Debate

Oct 14, 2016
Originally published on October 14, 2016 5:58 pm

When Jessica Leeds was a traveling paper saleswoman in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she told herself that sexual harassment was just a fact of life.

"You didn't complain about that sort of thing," she told NPR in an interview Friday, which will air on All Things Considered.

But an encounter she says she had with Donald Trump on a New York-bound airplane more than 30 years ago was different. As she initially recounted to the New York Times in a story published Wednesday, she says Trump groped and kissed her as the two sat next to each other in first class.

"Whether it was 15 minutes or not, it seemed like forever," she said.

The encounter had begun as a "cordial" conversation over an in-flight dinner. Leeds said she had been escorted by a flight attendant from coach to first class, where she found herself seated next to Trump.

"They served a dinner. After the dinner was cleared he began encroaching on my side of the seat," Leeds told NPR's Audie Cornish. "Mr. Trump started coming over to me and groping me and trying to embrace me. And then his hands started going up my skirt."

Leeds said the assault continued for several minutes, though, as she recalls, neither she nor Trump ever said anything.

"I don't recall saying no, I don't recall saying stop," she said. "I don't recall saying anything. It was like a silent pantomime. I remember at one point looking over at the guy in the seat across the aisle, and his eyes were like bugging out of his head."

Leeds said she eventually stood up and walked back to her initial seat in coach, where she remained for the rest of the flight.

"It really rattled me," she said, to the point where after the flight landed, she remained in her seat until everyone else had exited the airplane, so that she wouldn't have to confront Trump a second time.

In the days since Leeds' report first surfaced, Trump has denied every detail of the encounter. In fact, he is framing her story and similar accounts from other women published in recent days as a "concerted, coordinated, and vicious attack" launched by media outlets to elect Hillary Clinton.

"The claims are preposterous, ludicrous, and defy truth, common sense and logic," Trump told a Florida crowd Thursday. "Another ridiculous tale, no witnesses, no nothing."

NPR has reached out to the Trump campaign for additional comment. The campaign has not responded, though Trump did address Leeds' allegations again Friday afternoon in North Carolina.

"Oh, I was with Donald Trump in 1980," Trump said, mimicking Leeds' accusation. "I was sitting with him on an airplane, and he went after me on the plane."

"Yeah, I'm going to go after you," Trump said dismissively, waving his arms. "Believe me – she would not be my first choice. That I can tell you."

"You don't know. That would not be my first choice."

Leeds said she did her best to forget the incident and move on.

"If I had complained my boss, I think, would have said, 'Look, that's part of the job. You've got to take care of yourself there,' " Leeds said. "This just wasn't done. You just accepted it."

And that's what she did for decades, until Trump ran for president. As he advanced through the primaries, Leeds told the New York Times, friends and family she had shared the incident with urged her to come forward, but she resisted.

"It had been so long ago, and the usual, 'Well, it's a he said/she said situation,' " she reasoned.

That changed Sunday night, when debate moderator Anderson Cooper of CNN asked Trump whether he had ever groped or kissed women without their permission, as he had boasted to Access Hollywood's Billy Bush in an unearthed 2005 tape.

When Trump said he had never grabbed nor kissed women without their consent, Leeds said she "jumped out of my skin and wanted to punch the screen. ... I found myself on my feet yelling at the TV, saying, 'He's lying.' "

After a sleepless night, Leeds decided to contact the Times.

Since then, her life has taken an unexpected turn. She is screening her calls and dealing with photographers camped outside her apartment. (A situation for which — she made a point to tell NPR — she apologizes to her neighbors.)

"Obviously, if I had any idea this would have created such an uproar," she said, "I might have had second thoughts about writing the Times."

But Leeds is hoping some good comes out of her story.

"It would be nice if we could address some of these issues between men and women and try to learn from it, try to grow from it," she said.

Leeds added that she had convinced herself that contemporary women don't deal with the same type of harassment she experienced in the workplace, but now she doesn't quite believe that anymore.

"So, while I'd like to think things are better for women, I'm not so sure they are," Leeds said. "But it would be nice if we could have some sort of conversation go on from here that would deal with this matter."

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We're going to hear now from Jessica Leeds. This week she told The New York Times that Trump groped her when she was sitting next to him on a plane more than 30 years ago. I spoke with her earlier today via Skype.

Jessica Leeds, thank you for talking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.


CORNISH: Now, you've described this episode as not being a short one. Your recollection is that it lasted about 15 minutes. Can you tell us how it started?

LEEDS: I was reseated into first class from the coach section on a flight into New York, and the gentleman sitting in the other seat introduced himself as Donald Trump. I introduced myself. We chatted. It was very cordial. They served a dinner.

After the dinner was cleared, he began encroaching on my side of the seat. I don't remember what happened to the armrest. It - whether it got pulled out or whether it was folded up, I don't remember. But I do know that Mr. Trump started coming over to me and groping me. And then his hands started going up my skirt.

Whether it was 15 minutes or not, it seemed like forever. But I got up at that point and took my purse and went back to the coach section.

CORNISH: While this was happening, was he saying anything to you? I mean what were you thinking when he started this?

LEEDS: No. I didn't say anything. I don't recall saying no. I don't recall saying stop. I don't recall saying anything. And he didn't say anything. It was like a silent pantomime. I remember at one point looking over at the guy in the - on the seat across the aisle, and his eyes were like bugging out of his head. And the stewardess was nowhere to be found.

CORNISH: In the immediate aftermath of this incident, did you feel like you could tell anyone what had happened?

LEEDS: It never occurred to me to tell anyone. It never occurred to me to complain to the airlines. It never occurred to me to complain to my boss. It was, to be frank, not that uncommon. If I had complained, my boss I think would have said, look; that's part of the job. You've got to take care of yourself there. There was no mechanism for making complaints, say, like human resources. This just wasn't done. You just accepted it.

CORNISH: At the same time you describe this as being very jarring. You described the passenger nearby you saying, you know - his eyes bugging out of his head. It sounds like this wasn't that common, that this was an egregious moment.

LEEDS: Well, this was an egregious moment because it was like somewhat a public space. And I just felt so exposed. And I'm a fairly tall woman. I felt that for the most part I could take care of myself physically. But he was very strong and very difficult.

So, yes, it really rattled me. It rattled me enough so that I waited until everybody was off the airlines before I left. I didn't want to take the chance of running into him at all.

CORNISH: In the last year, you shared this story with your son, other family and close friends. And it's been reported in The Times that when one of your friends suggested you go to the media with this story, that you resisted. And this was many decades later, right? This was during the Republican primary. What held you back from speaking out?

LEEDS: The time - that it had been so long ago, the usual, well, it's a he said, she said situation. And there were so many stories coming out that were much more current. And I thought that that would have more impact than what I had to say.

CORNISH: What was it about those reports, about those other women's stories that triggered something in you?

LEEDS: What triggered my response was the tapes that came out on that Friday and then the debate where Anderson Cooper asked point-blank to Donald Trump had he groped or touched somebody inappropriately. I forget how he asked the question. But Mr. Trump answered no.

CORNISH: Mrs. Leeds, we have a clip of that audio and specifically this exchange between CNN anchor Anderson Cooper and Donald Trump. Here it is.


ANDERSON COOPER: Just for the record though, are you saying that what you said on that bus 11 years ago - that you did not actually kiss women without consent or grope women without consent?

DONALD TRUMP: I have great respect for women. Nobody has more respect for women than I do.

COOPER: So for the record...

TRUMP: I said...

COOPER: ...You're saying you never did that?

TRUMP: I said things that - frankly, you hear these things I said. And I was embarrassed by it. But I have tremendous respect for women.

COOPER: Have you ever done those things?

TRUMP: And women have respect for me. And I will tell you, no I have not.

CORNISH: Jessica Leeds, how did you react to that exchange when you heard it?

LEEDS: That's the exchange where I found myself on my feet yelling at the TV, saying, he's lying. Maybe he's convinced himself, but he is lying. And the next morning when I got some emails from friends who had heard the story. And they all said, oh, really, you should write up. And I was so pissed at that point that I wrote a letter to the editor of The Times. And that's how this all got started.

CORNISH: Now, Mr. Trump has responded to your story, calling it a total fabrication. He's calling the allegations against him smears. Here he is speaking.


TRUMP: Now today, the same two discredited writers who should have been fired from The New York Times for what they did tell another totally fabricated and false story that supposedly took place on an airplane more than 30 years ago - another ridiculous tale, no witnesses, no nothing.

CORNISH: Jessica Leeds, your response to that?

LEEDS: I recognize the fact that it was that many years ago. And it would be impossible to find the people like the guy sitting across the aisle. And it is basically I said, he said, so that's why I thought the stories, the more current stories, would have much more impact. But for some reason this has created somewhat of a firestorm.

CORNISH: You've said that you're a Hillary Clinton supporter. And what is your response to Donald Trump and his backers who don't believe you precisely because of the timing so close to Election Day?

LEEDS: It was the second debate that put the fire in my belly to get this story out. That's true. I am a Hillary supporter not as much as I think now I probably should be, I have not actively campaigned for her. I've not contributed more than five bucks to get a button. But I'm not politically active at all.

So they're trying to see some sort of connection, and there is none. I have not talked to the - Clinton's people. They have not tried to contact me. They've been (laughter) quiet for me.

CORNISH: In the end, how do you hope that coming forward will make some kind of difference? Is this about women in the culture? Is this about the election? What is this about for you coming forward now?

LEEDS: Well, now, it would be good if we could address these sexual issues and try to improve them. But, yes, too, this election is very important. It would be very difficult to think of four years of Donald Trump presidency.

CORNISH: Well, Jessica Leeds, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

LEEDS: You're welcome.

CORNISH: That was Jessica Leeds. She's alleged that Donald Trump groped her more than 30 years ago after she was seated next to him on an airplane. We reached out to the Trump campaign for comment but have not heard back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.