For years now, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has been an outspoken champion of the rights of sexual assault survivors and fought to change how sexual abuse and harassment is handled in the military and Congress. It is work that has also come with significant political costs, particularly now that she’s running for president. “It is sad, and it is horrible and what you see everywhere is the institutional bias against survivors, and in favor of the powerful,” Gillibrand said in 2017. “You see it in every instance—the military, Congress, college campuses, Wall Street, the movie industry. You see it over and over again that perpetrators are protected.”
On Monday, Politico reported that Gillibrand’s office may have done the same. According to that report, a woman working for the senator resigned in 2018 over how she said Gillibrand and her staff handled a sexual harassment claim she made against one of the senator’s longstanding and closest aides, Abbas Malik.
The woman, who has remained anonymous due to fears of retaliation, reported several instances of unwanted sexual advances that began in July 2018—after Malik was told he would be promoted to a supervisory role that she would report into:
According to that timeline and documentation sent to Gillibrand’s office at the time, the alleged harassment started almost immediately after word of the planned promotion, with increasingly aggressive advances. In one late-night text message, Malik told her he now understood the meaning of the clown emoji — it meant “down to clown,” an innuendo for having sex from the movie “Blockers,” he elaborated the next morning.
On one day alone, July 13, she said Malik made four unwanted advances, which were all rebuffed. The first occurred alone in the office early in the morning when Malik told the woman he had a secret for her: Her boss had just quit.
“Ugh I shouldn’t have told you. You are totally going to tell people,” he said, according to her notes. “Why do I love you! I should hate you!”
After Malik prodded her for a secret of her own, she said Malik walked up to her desk and asked, “If we had met in a bar would it have happened for us?”
At an event later that same evening, Malik reportedly told her: “I thought by debrief you meant you were hitting on me,” an apparent reference to an earlier text.
The woman then asked him if he was joking:
“No, I’m not kidding,” he responded. “[O]h wow ok no I was absolutely not hitting on you,” she replied, according to her timeline. He pressed two more times, prompting the woman to chide him in a text: “You’re married!!” He still sent a string of flirtatious texts later, including one with a clown emoji.
After the woman reported the harassment to Anne Bradley, Gillibrand’s deputy chief of staff, an internal investigation was launched—a process that many have noted, including Gillibrand herself, that is biased toward the accused.
That investigation found that while Malik had made “inappropriate comments,” his behavior did not rise to the level of sexual harassment and did not warrant his firing. Instead, his planned promotion was revoked, his desk was moved, and he was given a final warning.
The woman resigned three weeks later. In a letter the woman sent to Gillibrand after her resignation, she wrote:
I have offered my resignation because of how poorly the investigation and post-investigation was handled. I trusted and leaned on this statement that you made: “You need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is O.K. None of it is acceptable.” Your office chose to go against your public belief that women shouldn’t accept sexual harassment in any form and portrayed my experience as a misinterpretation instead of what it actually was: harassment and ultimately, intimidation.
Malik, who is so close to Gillibrand that she officiated his wedding, has a pattern of harassment and shitty and sexist behavior, according to several former staffers interviewed by Politico:
One of those two former staffers said Malik often called her fat and unattractive to her face and made light of sexual abuse. She recalled one instance in which Malik remarked that a particular woman they were talking about “couldn’t get laid unless she was raped.” The person did not report that behavior at the time but now says she wishes she had.
Two more staffers who worked for Gillibrand said the woman’s claims of Malik’s inappropriate workplace behavior matched their own experiences. They said Malik regularly made misogynistic jokes, frequently appraised what they wore, disparaged the looks of other female staffers and rated the attractiveness of women who came in for interviews.
When confronted with these stories by Politico at the end of February, Gillibrand’s office began a new investigation; Malik was fired shortly after.
In a statement to Politico, Gillibrand defended how her office handled the woman’s claims and the subsequent investigation: “As I have long said, when allegations are made in the workplace, we must believe women so that serious investigations can actually take place, we can learn the facts, and there can be appropriate accountability,” Gillibrand said. “That’s exactly what happened at every step of this case last year. I told her that we loved her at the time and the same is true today.”
When reached by Jezebel, Gillibrand’s communications director Whitney Mitchell Brennan echoed the senator:
At every step of the process, immediate action was taken by the office. The previous allegations in question were investigated in consultation with Senate Employment Counsel, and included multiple interviews with relevant current employees who could potentially corroborate the claims. A full and thorough investigation into the evidence revealed employee misconduct that, while inappropriate, did not meet the standard for sexual harassment. However, because the office did find unprofessional behavior that violated office policy, including derogatory comments, the office took strong disciplinary action against the employee in question and he was given a final warning.
She added: “Recently, we learned of never-before reported and deeply troubling comments allegedly made by this same individual. The office immediately began another investigation and interviewed relevant witnesses, which has led to the office terminating the employee from staff last week.”
The woman, meanwhile, clearly disagrees that her claims of harassment were taken seriously by Gillibrand and her office. “When I had the courage to speak up about my harasser, I was belittled by her office and treated like an inconvenience,” the woman said. “She kept a harasser on her staff until it proved politically untenable for her to do so.”