Special: U.S. Gymnasts Testimony on Larry Nassar Investigation

Sep. 17, 2021 AT 9:19 p.m. EDT

Earlier this week, four elite gymnasts testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, detailing the failures in the handling of the sexual abuse investigation on former USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. The panel discussed the implications of the testimonies, the flaws in the FBI’s handling of the case, and more.

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YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Welcome to the Washington Week Extra. I’m Yamiche Alcindor.

This week President Biden stood alongside the prime ministers of the U.K. and Australia and announced a new defense agreement. The new deal meant Australia canceled a $40 billion contract to buy French-designed submarines. French officials immediately lashed out at President Biden, saying he was acting like former President Donald Trump by making unpredictable decisions. On Friday, France recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia over the fight.

Joining us tonight to discuss this and all – a lot more is Sabrina Siddiqui, White House reporter for The Wall Street Journal; and Kelsey Snell, congressional correspondent for NPR. Thank you, ladies, both for being here.

Sabrina, what does this new – this new defense deal really entail? And talk a bit about what the plan was here, especially as it relates to China.

SABRINA SIDDIQUI: Well, the Biden administration is moving to share sensitive nuclear submarine technology with Australia, and what that did is it effectively canceled an existing deal between Australia and France under which, as you pointed out, Australia was going to buy about a dozen diesel-powered submarines from the French, and it’s hard to really overstate the kind of economic significance that that deal bore to France. You know, I think that a lot of this has to do with this idea that the French say they were blindsided. You know, the diplomatic response from the French has been unusually blunt. You know, it may not sound like a big deal to cancel a gala, as they did, but I think the historic significance of that gala – you know, it was supposed to commemorate the French’s naval assistance to American forces during the Revolutionary War – and now they’re recalling ambassadors from both the U.S. and Australia. So this is really a challenge that the Biden administration is going to have to address because as much as this goes back to President Biden’s own domestic and foreign policy agenda, which is very much centered on reining in China’s influence more broadly, kind of seeking a counterweight to Beijing, in the process his administration has inflamed one of the United States’ closest and most important allies, and so this diplomatic fallout could potentially reverberate in the coming days if not weeks.

MS. ALCINDOR: I mean, that’s a – it’s a lot – it’s a big challenge, and I keep thinking about the idea that, you know, former President Trump, he pissed off the allies in a number of ways in terms of U.S. allies, but recalling ambassadors by the French is a sort of really, really big step, and especially when you think about the foreign policy challenges that President Biden was already facing with Afghanistan.

MS. SIDDIQUI: It certainly, you know, brings once again foreign policy and diplomatic relations back into the focus, and I think that, you know, the abrupt nature of all of this is what has taken many by surprise. Now, the French have actually in their own words said that this is Trumpian in many ways, that they expected instability or I guess they used the word “unpredictable” – they expected former President Trump to be unpredictable; they didn’t – they expect to have disagreements with President Biden and his administration, but they didn’t expect to be taken by surprise. Now, you know, the Biden administration has said that the French were given a heads up on this agreement, but it’s quite clear that, despite this agreement being negotiated over the – quietly, secretly negotiated over the course of months, they did not give their French counterparts much notice, and that’s really what’s key here in terms of the anger that you’re seeing from the French government. But you know, I think this is a distraction once again from the president’s agenda. President Biden has been much more wanting to focus on infrastructure and domestic priorities that he’s trying to advance here at home, on his handling of COVID-19 and the need to vaccinate more people; much like Afghanistan, this is now pulling his attention in another direction and just casting, you know, some doubt on just the preparedness within his foreign policy team and, again, whether or not he is, in fact, turning the page when it comes to diplomatic relations with key U.S. allies.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Kelsey, how might this complicate the Democrats’ overall agenda when you think about what Congress has to do, when you think about the fact that the GOP might grab onto this and say, look, this is just another example of President Biden not really carrying out and having the sort of administration that he’s promised? Of course, again, the White House is saying we’re going to work this out, this is really Australia’s decision, but what does your sourcing tell you?

KELSEY SNELL: Well, you know, we’re already seeing Republicans saying that this is just another – they like to use the term Democrats in disarray. This is – this is a little bit more of that that we already hear from them. I will say, though, that Democrats I talk to say that they don’t feel like foreign policy is durable. It doesn’t feel like something that they typically – when they go out and poll and they see how voters feel about things, foreign policy doesn’t usually stick around very long. So, as I talk to Democrats about their plans, about how they’re going to talk about these things, they think that they – they rely on the Biden administration’s word that they will work it out, and by the time it gets worked out people will move on. And you’re right, they want to focus on a lot of these domestic issues. That is the core of the Biden agenda and it is happening right now on Capitol Hill. They have plenty of their own problems there right now, and it is very difficult for them to advance those policies, so they are fighting a kind of multifront PR war trying to keep all of Democrats together and supporting the president.

MS. ALCINDOR: And before we start the next part of our conversation, a warning to our audience: This week’s show includes discussions of sexual abuse.

On Wednesday, four elite gymnasts who endured sexual abuse at the hands of disgraced former U.S. gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar testified before Congress. They detailed the mishandling of the investigation into Nassar’s crimes.

MAGGIE NICHOLS: (From video.) Not only did the FBI fail to conduct a thorough investigation, but they also knew that USAG and the USOPC created a false narrative where Larry Nassar was allowed to retire with his reputation intact and return to Michigan State University.

ALY RAISMAN: (From video.) Nassar found more than 100 new victims to molest. It was like serving innocent children up to a pedophile on a silver platter.

MCKAYLA MARONEY: (From video.) Not only did the FBI not report my abuse, but when they eventually documented my report 17 months later they made entirely false claims about what I said. What is the point of reporting abuse if our own FBI agents are going to take it upon themselves to bury that report in a drawer?

SIMONE BILES: (From video.) To be clear – sorry –

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL): (From video.) Take your time.

MS. BILES: (From video.) To be clear, I blame Larry Nassar and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse. A message needs to be sent: If you allow a predator to harm children, the consequences will be swift and severe. Enough is enough.

MS. ALCINDOR: Just heartbreaking testimony from these gymnasts. Nassar is now serving up to 175 years in prison, but the gymnasts demanded senators hold the FBI, top USA gymnastic officials, and the U.S. and the – sorry, and the Olympic Committee accountable for failing to investigate him. It’s just – it’s such heartbreaking testimony. Meanwhile, FBI Director Christopher Wray apologized to the gymnasts.

FBI DIRECTOR CHRISTOPHER WRAY: (From video.) I’m deeply and profoundly sorry to each and every one of you. And I’m especially sorry that there were people at the FBI who had their own chance to stop this monster back in 2015 and failed, and that is inexcusable.

MS. ALCINDOR: Inexcusable. Joining us tonight to discuss this story: Kavitha Davidson. She is a national sports and culture writer for The Athletic and the co-author of Loving Sports When They Don’t Love You Back. Kavitha, I’m trying to keep it together. It was such a hard thing to watch those young women go up there. You’ve been covering this. The DOJ found major flaws in the FBI’s handling of this – of this case, of this sexual abuse case. What did we learn from their report?

KAVITHA DAVIDSON: Yeah, one of the things that the Office of the Inspector General found which I think is probably the most damning thing to come out of the report is the failure to report, to push this up the chain. The first investigations that FBI field offices in Indianapolis, which is where most Olympians train, were conducted in 2015. And as McKayla Maroney said, her testimony, her interviews were not formally written up in a report for another 17 months. In those 17 months the OIG says 70 additional women and girls were victimized. The attorneys for several of the victims say that number is closer to 120. And in addition to that, the report found that the FBI either fabricated the interviews that they conducted or made misleading statements about what these women said, or omitted details completely.

One of the things that also came out, that’s come out in the last few months, which needs to be investigated as well, is that one of the investigators, Jay Abbott, had previously – had applied in the same year, in 2015, that he was conducting these investigations and these interviews. He had applied for a job at the U.S. Olympic Committee, and that’s a clear conflict of interest. So there’s a lot that needs to be looked into, that needs to be overhauled here by Christopher Wray.

MS. ALCINDOR: And what has the FBI done to ensure that this will never happen again, and is there enough that has been done to ensure this will never happen again?

MS. DAVIDSON: I don’t think there has been enough that has been done. Christopher Wray has spoken very, you know, strongly, and I believe him when he says that he understands that there needs to be a whole overhaul of this process. He’s spoken to increasing training protocols, particularly when interviewing sex abuse victims.

One of things that both Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney spoke to was the line of questioning that they were subjected to, which unfortunately is something that sexual assault victims in every case has said about many investigators, where McKayla Maroney said that they tried to minimize what happened to her; she described the physical nature of the abuse, and at one point, one of the investigators said, is that all, essentially, really minimizing what these women went through. They also said that they were asked, you know, whether there was any part of the treatment – quote-unquote “treatment” – that Larry Nassar gave them that helped them, the implication there being, well, you know, was the abuse worth suffering through for the medical help that he gave you, which obviously is a ridiculous claim.

So there needs to be an overhaul of the process of how people are trained to conduct these interviews. But the other part that has come out of this is that every single level of institutional check and balance that should have been in place completely broke down. The investigations, the interviews, the complaints, the abusers, the abuse victims kept getting pushed in different parts, either up or down the chain, and nobody has really been able to be held accountable for what that process should look like.

MS. ALCINDOR: As you said, the system sort of broke down here. I wonder, what will this mean, based on your reporting, for other athletes? And also, what does it mean that these women were not taken seriously, when you think about the fact that so many other women who don’t have their platforms are also survivors of sexual abuse?

MS. DAVIDSON: I think about that a lot, especially when it comes to this case. The first girl came forward with an accusation against Larry Nassar in 1997. Michigan State conducted a Title IX investigation that cleared him in 2014; the FBI started their investigation in 2015. And it really wasn’t until an Indianapolis Star report in 2016 happened that people were forced to take this seriously. In 2017, that’s when these four women, that’s when the most prominent faces of USA Gymnastics came forward with their own stories. And I think about the hundreds of women who came forward before them, the many more that we know have to be out there who have yet to come forward themselves. But it took the most prominent faces and the people with a voice in order to do that. And Simone Biles said this, that, you know, it’s the – the reason that she chose to compete in Tokyo was because she knew that it took someone of her stature to remain in the public eye to keep this issue in the public eye to hold anybody accountable. And this is by no means limited to USA Gymnastics; we’ve seen this in USA Swimming. We’ve seen this in junior hockey with young boys being abused. And unfortunately, we’ve seen this, you know, throughout – outside the realm of sports. So I do think about, you know, hopefully this having ripple effects on overhauling the system and making people take this seriously, not just when it’s the loudest voices and the most prominent voices talking about it.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Kelsey, Kavitha’s talking about ripple effects. What might a hearing like this, sort of rare hearing like this in Congress, what might it do to change things, and what can Congress and the White House do?

MS. SNELL: Well, Congress has the role of oversight here, and this is an opportunity for Congress to make a decision about the way they conduct oversight of the FBI. We haven’t seen investigations into individual practices of the FBI like this. We’ve seen some political investigations during the Trump administration of the FBI, but not like this. And if – there are committees that have the ability to focus on this; there is a special committee in the Senate that can be spending time really digging in on that. And so it’s an opportunity for Congress to make that decision to kind of move forward with that oversight. And it will be up to them whether or not they actually follow through with it or if this is one big, very prominent moment that they let pass by.

MS. ALCINDOR: Sabrina, the White House press secretary talked about this in the briefing room. What are you hearing from your sources about what the White House can do, wants to do about this issue?

MS. SIDDIQUI: Well, I think that we heard from White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, first and foremost, that they support that these women came forward, that they told their stories. The president, Jen Psaki said, supports, you know, an independent investigation by the inspector general as well. I think a big question, though, is whether or not this will have been a hearing that was more symbolic than it does lead to actual consequences, because it took tremendous strength, everything that these women had, to come and detail the sexual abuse that they suffered and the way in which their cases were mishandled by the FBI, so there’s a question with respect to oversight. There’s a question with respect to funding for SafeSport, which is the program that is supposed to raise awareness around sexual violence and also investigate predators and abusers within the sport. Apparently, funding has been lagging for that program.

But I think ultimately, you know, the real question is accountability, because Larry Nassar is in prison, but the people who mishandled this case, you know, were given the luxury of being able to retire or step aside, and I think what you were hearing from these gymnasts is absent – you can’t break the cycle unless you hold everyone who was responsible accountable, not just the abuser but the people who enabled the abuse. And so that is really a key question moving forward and why the role of the FBI is so important here. The system failed these women, and you cannot break this cycle unless you hold the entire system accountable.

MS. SNELL: You know, one of the things that we did hear is that they were talking about changes within the FBI in how they do paperwork and how they process people in sensitivity training. But this is a systemic question and it’s not just about the treatment of these extremely prominent women who had a platform to come forward but how the FBI conducts itself in any other investigation with the millions of women who may be coming forward with this who don’t have that platform, who don’t have the ability to, you know, find their own way to bring a case to the fore. There is much more to be done here than, you know, one hearing can accommodate.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Kavitha, six years after the first report was made to the FBI, so many people knew about this, but there are so many people – individuals, organizations – that haven’t been held accountable. What more do you know about whether or not anyone else would be held accountable, even though, as we’ve said, Nassar is in prison?

MS. DAVIDSON: Yeah, I mean, as we’ve talked about, Nassar’s the only one who has so far faced criminal liability. Everyone else, from officials at Michigan State to USA Gymnastics to the USOC, have either been fired or allowed to retire or allowed to resign, not necessarily in disgrace but there have yet to be criminal charges pressed against other people. Jessica Howard, who was one of the gymnasts who has spoken in the press conference after the hearings, was asked very plainly, what do you hope to see, and her answer was very simple: indictments. And it is about accountability. It’s about punishment. It’s about systemic reform.

And to go back to the SafeSport thing: I think that’s a really important point, because SafeSport receives $20 million of funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee. And I think that we’ve seen, in any realm of oversight, the body that is tasked with investigating an organization cannot be funded by that organization. So true independence really does need to come out of that, and that is something that Congress can do.

MS. ALCINDOR: And Kavitha, is there a realistic end in sight? What is the realistic end in sight here? Looking down the road, looking at where this goes next, what does your reporting tell you about who could be held accountable and how this sort of – what this sort of sea change might look like if there’s a sea change coming?

MS. DAVIDSON: I think if you’re looking at the FBI, the first questions start with the two investigators at hand. One of them was fired earlier this week. But the idea that only two, frankly, men were in charge of this, that this was in the hands of two people who may or may not have had conflicts of interest but who clearly did not believe these women and did not take them seriously enough, needs to be – needs to change, absolutely. And that is something that seems very easy to change.

MS. ALCINDOR: Well, thank you so much for this conversation. It’s an important one. We’ll have to leave it there tonight. Thank you to Kavitha, Sabrina, and Kelsey for joining us and for sharing your reporting.

Make sure to sign up also for the Washington Week newsletter on our website. We will give you a behind-the-scenes look at all things Washington. I’m Yamiche Alcindor. Good night.

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