Donald Trump ‘grabbed me and went for the lips’, says new accuser
On 7 October, as the political world convulsed from the revelation that Trump had bragged about kissing and groping women without their consent, Cathy Heller, 63, was sitting in her New York home fielding incredulous emails from a friend.
“I keep thinking about how he treated you,” her friend wrote, hours after showing Heller the tape. “Obviously not an isolated incident.”
It was a story Heller had told many friends and family members over the years, but is only now telling in public. Some 20 years ago, she claims, when she met Donald Trump for the first and only time, he grabbed her, went for a kiss, and grew angry with her as she twisted away. “Oh, come on,” she alleges that he barked, before holding her firmly in place and planting his lips on hers.
It is exactly what Trump claimed, in the most recent presidential debate, that he did not do. And so Heller has added her voice to a chorus of women now accusing Trump of unwanted behavior. “He can’t claim we’re all liars,” Heller said.
Her allegation tracks closely what Trump claimed in a 2005 recording obtained by the Washington Post. “You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful – I just start kissing them,” Trump is heard saying on the tape. “It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”
“And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
Trump has denied that he ever acted on his words. But in speaking out about her experience, Heller joins eight other women who have publicly accused Trump of inappropriate come-ons, touching, or kissing over the past several decades. The allegations have opened a chasm within the Republican party as the presidential campaign enters the crucial final weeks, and have inspired Trump to issue a series of fulminating denials. This week, Trump called some of the women who have accused him “horrible, horrible liars”.
But Heller does not believe Trump’s many accusers are lying.
Their alleged encounter took place almost two decades ago – Heller believes the year was 1997 and she was at a Mother’s Day brunch – at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. Heller, her husband, her three children and her in-laws were among dozens of families seated at big round tables in what she and a relative who spoke to the Guardian recall was an open lobby.
Trump made the rounds greeting members of his club. When he stopped at their table, Heller recalled, and her mother-in-law introduced her, she stood and extended her hand.
“He took my hand, and grabbed me, and went for the lips,” she claimed.
Alarmed, she said she leaned backwards to avoid him and almost lost her balance. “And he said, ‘Oh, come on.’ He was strong. And he grabbed me and went for my mouth and went for my lips.” She turned her head, she claims, and Trump planted a kiss on the side of her mouth. “He kept me there for a little too long,” Heller said. “And then he just walked away.”
“I was angry and shaken,” she continued. “He was pissed. He couldn’t believe a woman would pass up the opportunity.” She added that he seemed to feel “entitled” to kiss her.
The Guardian heard accounts that matched Heller’s from two other people: Susan Klein, the friend who was emailing with Heller, and a relative seated at the table with Heller that day. The relative, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation, recalled that Heller sat back down with a stunned look on her face.
“I remember she was really freaked out,” said the relative. The relative didn’t see Heller’s entire interaction with Trump, but saw him get “in her face” and saw Heller pull away. “He was very forceful … She really was definitely affected by this man who was very aggressive toward her.”
Heller and the relative both recalled that no one at the table quite knew how to react. “I was shook up,” said Heller. As they all processed the moment, Trump had already left.
But the incident has never been far from Heller’s mind or her family’s.
“Even before the news, that was something we’ve always talked about,” said the relative.
An acquaintance of Heller’s, who did not want wish to be named because of the attention it would bring, said Heller told him her story about Trump more than a month ago. “This was before all the stories came out,” he said. “I remember she said, ‘He grabbed me, he pulled me toward him, he tried to kiss me.’ It made her very uncomfortable.”
Heller readily acknowledged that she is a Clinton supporter who would not have backed Trump regardless of how he behaved the one time they met. Heller met Clinton briefly at a March fundraiser, and in January she donated the individual maximum of $2,700 to Clinton’s campaign. She believes she has also attended a party where the Clintons were present.
In addition, her husband’s family is involved in a years-long effort to recover initiation fees that her late in-laws paid to join Mar-A-Lago. The club’s rules state that the fees are refundable under certain circumstances when an individual is no longer a member, and Heller has placed at least one phone call to a club manager attempting to recover the money, totaling several thousand dollars.
But Heller says her encounter with Trump predates that effort.
“My motivations for speaking,” she said, are to show “it’s not ‘just talk’”, as Trump has claimed. “It’s action.”
Klein, Heller’s friend and neighbor, told the Guardian that she had heard the story long before the tape surfaced.
Klein said she learned about Heller’s alleged brush with Trump in the summer of 2015. It was shortly after Trump launched his run for the presidency, and Heller confided her story to the ladies’ Mahjong group the women both belong to near their homes in New York. Klein recounted Heller’s telling of story to the Guardian in similar detail.
“And when this tape came out, I couldn’t believe it, because it was exactly what he said he did and had done to Cathy,” Klein said.
Klein forwarded a breaking news alert to Heller on 7 October, the day news of the tape broke. “You were one of Trump’s victims,” she wrote. “He said when he sees a pretty woman, he just kisses her, he doesn’t even wait.”
Later that night, Heller replied: “The stories coming out go so well with how he treated me!”
On Saturday afternoon, the Trump campaign denied the accusation. “There is no way that something like this would have happened in a public place on Mother’s Day at Mr Trump’s resort,” spokesman Jason Miller said in a statement. “It would have been the talk of Palm Beach for the past two decades.
“The reality is this: for the media to wheel out a politically motivated Democratic activist with a legal dispute against this same resort owned by Mr Trump does a disservice to the public, and anyone covering this story should be embarrassed for elevating this bogus claim.”
Heller said that besides her January donation to Clinton, she had “also bought a woman’s card from Hillary,” alluding to a $5 card sold by the campaign after Trump accused his rival of “constantly playing the woman card”.
She added that although she supports Clinton, she is not an activist – “I’ve never done any work for the Democratic Party” – and that she is not pursuing any legal action against Mar-A-Lago.
On its release, the tape quickly unleashed a cascade of accusations from women who have said Trump forcibly kissed or groped them, or reached under their clothing without asking. For many, the tipping point came the Sunday night after the tape’s release, in Trump’s second presidential debate with Clinton. Pressed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper to say whether he touched women without their consent, Trump denied that he had.
“No, I did not,” Trump said. “I don’t think you understood what was said. This was locker room talk … Certainly I’m not proud of it. But this is locker room talk.
Within days, several former competitors in the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA contests, pageants once owned by Trump, claimed that Trump had barged into their dressing rooms without warning while they were half-dressed or naked. One woman, who spoke to Buzzfeed, said at the time she was 15.
By Friday evening, eight women had accused Trump – publicly and using their full names – of harassing them or touching them without their consent. Jessica Leeds and Rachel Crooks alleged to the New York Times that Trump was sexually inappropriate toward them on a plane and in Trump Tower, respectively.
Mindy McGillivary and the People writer Natasha Stoynoff claimed Trump grabbed them, and, in Stoynoff’s case, forced a kiss on her, at separate events at Mar-a-Lago. In a tearful statement she read on Friday afternoon, Summer Zervos, a former contestant on The Apprentice, Trump’s reality TV show, accused Trump of using conversations about a job opportunity as cover to touch her breast and try to force her into his bedroom at a Beverly Hills hotel.
Trump has reacted to these allegations with livid denials. At recent rallies, where his speeches have grown more feverish and conspiratorial, Trump has said some of the women to accuse him are not attractive enough for him to have hit on. “Look at her,” Trump said of Stoynoff. “I don’t think so.”
A steady drumbeat of campaign surrogates have questioned the timing of Trump’s accusers, suggesting they are seeking attention.
But accusations of sexual misconduct against Trump are not new. Jill Harth, a woman whose husband briefly partnered with Trump to produce a pageant, accused Trump in a 1997 lawsuit of attempting to rape her – a claim she has maintained ever since.
Heller, likewise, had been telling friends her story for months before a spotlight shone on Trump’s behavior toward women.
“This is not just something she said when she heard other women were coming out,” Klein said. “She told us this a good year and a half ago.”
Heller also told her account to a Guardian reporter in February. But she declined to tell her story on the record.
What ultimately swayed Heller to tell her story publicly, she said, were Trump’s own denials. Hearing the tape, she said, made her feel “validated and vindicated”. But it was Trump’s denials at Sunday night’s debate that convinced her to speak up.
“He said this is just talk, but it’s not just talk,” Heller said. “This was him.”