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4 women say New York’s former attorney general assaulted them. Here’s why they went public

On Monday night, the New Yorker published accounts of four women who said they were assaulted by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a public figure who has advocated for women who have been sexually abused. Less than three hours later, Schneiderman resigned. John Yang talks with Ronan Farrow about why the women made the difficult decision to speak out.

Read the Full Transcript

  • William Brangham:

    Now to a stunning story about allegations of physical abuse by a public figure, one who's been outspoken in the MeToo movement.

    Last night, "The New Yorker" published the accounts of women who said they were assaulted by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. He's well known for his politics and his work, including advocating for women who have been sexually abused.

    As John Yang tells us, less than three hours after the story broke, Schneiderman resigned.

    And a warning – the violent nature of this story may make it unsuitable for some viewers.

  • John Yang:

    William, the four women whose experiences were reported by "The New Yorker" all had romantic relationships or encounters with Schneiderman.

    All told of abusive or controlling behavior, including being slapped, some so hard, they sought medical attention.

    Ronan Farrow, who won a Pulitzer Prize earlier this year for exposing the decades-long predatory behavior of movie producer Harvey Weinstein, broke this story, along with his "New Yorker" colleague Jane Mayer.

    Ronan, thanks for joining us.

    The term you use — or it's used in the headline of "The New Yorker" article was physical abuse, but it was more than that. Tell us what these women were saying their experiences were.

  • Ronan Farrow:

    It's good to be here.

    These allegations are incredibly serious, John. We're talking about women, independently of each other, recounting nearly identical patterns of slapping, hitting, choking. Of course, Eric Schneiderman championed legislation specifically targeting choking. And these women independently recounted that he was, in fact, engaging in that behavior.

    And one important point I want to he make is that they anticipated that he would claim this was consensual role playing. And they, to a one, went to pains to clarify that that is not what they are alleging. This was, as one woman in the story put it, not "Fifty Shades of Grey."

    This was not in a gray area at all, in the minds of these women. They gave no indication of consent. Indeed, in one case, there was no romantic relationship at all. This was a former colleague, a prominent attorney, and he, according to her story, came on to her at a party. And when she rebuffed him, he began calling her really horrific epithets and slapped her across the face hard enough to leave a mark the next day.

    And we saw pictures of that mark.

  • John Yang:

    And, to your point, Schneiderman put out a statement to "The New Yorker" by saying, "I have engaged in role playing and other consensual activity. I have not assaulted anyone."

    Ronan, in addition to the physical abuse, you report sort of controlling behavior and threats by Schneiderman.

  • Ronan Farrow:

    Many of these women described a pattern of threats, and even threats specifically using the power of Schneiderman's office, that he would talk about his ability to track people, to wiretap people.

    In the words of one woman, recalling an interaction with him, he said, "I am the law."

    And, you know, obviously, I caveat that with, you know, maybe that was a joke in his mind, but certainly I can say that these women took comments like that to be a threat.

  • John Yang:

    And, also, you spoke about his role as attorney general and sort of championing the MeToo movement.

    A couple of the women in the story said that that actually played a role in their thinking of whether or not they were going to say anything.

  • Ronan Farrow:

    For all of these women, as is the case for survivors of domestic violence and sexual violence in general, this was a painful process that took a long time.

    All of the women were reluctant initially to speak, although they did tell friends and other people at the time — and we spoke to those people who corroborated these stories — but, in terms of reporting this, many of them hesitated.

    And there were a variety of reasons for that, certainly his power, the fact that they were frightened of him physically, but also in terms of his ability to retaliate. And, also, they talked to friends who said he's doing too much good in the Democratic Party. Do you want to remove him from this office?

    None of them were motivated by wanting to see Eric Schneiderman go down. They were motivated by wanting to help other women. And I think, upon seeing his statements championing the MeToo movement and talking about women's rights, many of them felt that the hypocrisy was too much to bear, and that it was time for them to speak, in case it might protect the next woman who comes along.

  • John Yang:

    And, also, another common thread to these women's stories was the use of alcohol and tranquilizers.

  • Ronan Farrow:

    There is a thread running through this of substance abuse.

    And Many of the women described how out of control he would become, especially under the influence of a whole lot of drinking. You know, at least one of them alleged drunk driving, which Schneiderman denies.

    You know, it seems that this behavior was entwined with and exacerbated by those substances.

  • John Yang:

    Were you surprised at the swiftness of his fall, how quickly he resigned last night?

  • Ronan Farrow:

    It's not for me to predict or guess at what will happen to people's careers after a story like this.

    You know, my job was very narrow, which was to meticulously report out this story and interrogate these claims, and regard them with skepticism, but also really listen to what these women had to say.

    And I will tell you, very rapidly, it became apparent both how serious these claims were, and also how the heavily corroborated they were. We had documentation, medical records, witnesses, pictures that we reviewed.

    And so, in light of that, you know, I think it is heartening that it started a conversation very fast, and that there was an impact very fast.

  • John Yang:

    Ronan Farrow of "The New Yorker," thank you very much.

  • Ronan Farrow:

    Thanks, John. Good to be here.

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