House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that the longest-serving member of Congress, Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, should resign due to “serious, disappointing and very credible” accusations of sexual harassment leveled against him.
Pelosi’s announcement signaled a remarkable reversal after a public outcry and was quickly followed by similar statements by other prominent Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, who, like Conyers, is a longtime leader of the Congressional Black Caucus.
As recently as Wednesday, Clyburn had questioned the veracity of Conyers’ accusers. Clyburn’s change of position was first reported by Politico.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), speaking to reporters after Pelosi, also called for Conyers’ departure on Thursday, but it was the apparent collapse of Democratic support for the congressman, who has served in the House since 1965, that suggested most strongly the shift in sentiment against him.
The moves occurred as a former aide, Marion Brown, went public on NBC’s “Today” show to detail the congressman’s alleged inappropriate behavior. Brown received a $27,000 settlement in 2015 after being fired. She said she was dismissed in retaliation for refusing his advances.
Conyers, who is 88, was hospitalized Thursday in the Detroit area, local reports indicated.
“The brave women who came forward are owed justice,” Pelosi said. “I pray for Congressman Conyers and his family; I wish them well. However, Congressman Conyers should resign.”
Reading from a statement, Pelosi added that Conyers had served for more than half a century “and shaped some of the most consequential legislation of the last half-century.”
“However, zero tolerance means consequences for everyone. No matter how great the legacy, it’s no license to harass or discriminate; in fact it makes it more disappointing.”
In addition to prompting the settlement paid to Brown, Conyers has been accused by several other former aides of sexual misconduct. He has denied guilt and has said through a spokesman that he had no immediate plans to resign.
But pressure to do just that has increased markedly over the last several days. Congressional Black Caucus members met with Conyers on Tuesday night and afterward issued a statement defending his right to due process but calling on Conyers to “fully cooperate” with ethics investigations into his behavior.
“Any decision to resign from office before the ethics investigation is complete is John’s decision to make,” caucus chairman Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana said at the time.
Behind the scenes, however, the shifting view on what Conyers should do was typified by Pelosi’s turn from reflexively defending the congressman to calling for his departure.
In a Sunday appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Pelosi seemed to minimize the complaints against Conyers by referring to him as “an icon in our country” who had worked to secure rights for women and was confronting unverified accusations.
“I don’t know who they are. Do you?” she said of the women. “They have not really come forward. That’s for the Ethics Committee to review.”
In that interview, Pelosi also said several times said she expected Conyers would “do the right thing.” He stepped down from his leadership position on the Judiciary Committee a few hours later.
Later, however, Pelosi called one of the public accusers, Washington attorney Melanie Sloan, to apologize and issued a statement insisting that harassment victims should be able to talk openly about their experiences, regardless of nondisclosure agreements often required in settlements.
“I find the behavior Ms. Sloan described unacceptable and disappointing,” Pelosi said. “I believe what Ms. Sloan has told me.”
Another accuser, Brown, did precisely what Pelosi had suggested, appearing Thursday on the “Today” show to counter Conyers’ statements that he was innocent. Brown said that she was speaking out despite signing a nondisclosure agreement because of Conyers’ response to the controversy.
“I’m here to say I’m not a liar,” she said.
During her 11 years in his employ, Brown said, Conyers “just violated my body, he’s touched me in different ways. It was very uncomfortable and very unprofessional.”
In a Chicago hotel room in 2005, she said, he undressed and “asked me to satisfy him sexually. He pointed to genital areas of his body and asked me to touch him.”
Nine years later, she said, she was fired for refusing his advances.
Both houses of Congress have been caught up in a national repudiation of men accused of sexual harassment, a groundswell that has hit the movie industry, the media and, most recently, government.
Democrats initially hoped to take political advantage of the issue after Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, running in Alabama’s Dec. 12 election, was accused by several women of sexual advances — in one case an assault — when they were teenagers and he was a local prosecutor in his 30s.
But since then the party has been convulsed by the wave of allegations against Conyers and Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, who has been accused of groping by several women and, in a separate case, of forcibly kissing and mock-groping another woman as she slept.
The party’s reluctance to swiftly demand the same consequences for its members, even as Democrats denounce Moore drew a caustic rebuke on Thursday from Guy Cecil, the chairman of the influential Democratic advocacy group Priorities USA.
“This is not complicated,” he said in a tweet. “Conyers should resign. Franken should resign. Moore should drop out or be defeated. Hypocrisy on the other side doesn’t justify hypocrisy on our side. Period.”