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Why are so many Trump accusers suddenly coming forward now?

Lisa Belkin
Chief National Correspondent

Why now? If all these women were violated by Donald Trump years ago, why are they just speaking up now?

That’s what Joe Scarborough asked this morning on MSNBC, questioning whether there was a coordinated scheme behind the fact that a number of women came forward within 24 hours to describe sexually inappropriate acts by the Republican nominee. “If I had been sexually harassed by this man, the Megyn Kelly story would have given me an opportunity,” Scarborough said.

Trump surrogate A.J. Delgado had already suggested the same on “All In With Chris Hayes” the night before, saying “These allegations are decades old. If somebody actually did that, Chris, any reasonable woman would have come forward and said something at the time.”

And Donald Trump himself questioned the time lag in a tweet shortly after Scarborough went off the air:

To summarize: In an article published by the New York Times at 6:45 p.m. Wednesday evening, two women accused Trump of unwanted sexual contact. Jessica Leeds described a plane ride in the 1980s during which the now Republican-nominee raised the armrest between their seats, grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt. Rachel Crooks described a brief meeting in 2005, while waiting for an elevator at Trump Tower, when Trump kissed her on the mouth.

Then, almost simultaneously, the Palm Beach Post published the story of Mindy McGillivray, who says Trump groped her buttocks in 2005 while she was working as a photographer at his Mar-a-Lago Club. A few hours later, People magazine posted an account by its own reporter, Natasha Stoynoff, who wrote of being pushed against a wall and forcefully tongue-kissed by Trump while she was reporting a story about the first anniversary of his marriage to Melania.

And finally, that same day, Tasha Dixon, a former contestant in the Trump-owned Miss Teen USA pageant, told the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles that Trump had “come strolling right in” to the dressing room while contestants changed into bikinis. “There was no second to put a robe on or any sort of clothing or anything,” she said. “Some girls were topless. Other girls were naked.”

So, to return to Scarborough’s question this morning — why now?

Donald Trump delivers a speech Thursday in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

Rather than see it as a coordinated campaign of piling on, as Trump, Scarborough and Delgado say they do, it can be seen as no longer being able to keep quiet. It’s not a reflection of eagerness to join the fray, but of reluctance to do so until you somehow feel you must.

There are, after all, so many reasons to keep quiet — the same reasons that nearly 70 percent of sexual assault victims never report such assaults at all, and that those who do often take “days, weeks, months, or even years, and many never disclose it to anyone, including their closest friends,” the National Law Enforcement Policy Center has found. There’s fear of not being believed (a reason given by many of the 57 women who eventually accused Bill Cosby); and fear of taking on a powerful man who can retaliate (see Roger Ailes); or fear of being publicly pilloried (check Twitter this morning and see what the recent Trump accusers are going through). Usually it is more than one of the above.

Add to that the fact that once allegations are brought, vindication is rare. Plaintiffs win 40 percent of sexual harassment cases, and the average jury award is $217,000. Far more cases are settled, for an average of $30,000. Similarly, only 18 percent of prosecuted rape cases end in conviction. These cases are, by definition, almost always a “He said, she said” proposition, and it can be intimidating to be the “she” standing up to an abusive “he.”

What, then, spurs women to act? For some it is because the context has changed, and perhaps now they will be believed. Or their lens has changed, and something they accepted as “the way men are,” or somehow as “my fault,” looks far different as society redefines its terms. Or because the stakes have been raised — perhaps their abuser is now running for president. Or the instinct to keep quiet is overtaken by the anger of having kept quiet for too long.

I know that push. It was why I spoke out in May in a story titled “When Trump made a pass at me. And why it matters.” My story is not one of physical boundaries breached, and there was no criminal behavior on Trump’s part. But my tale of how he unmistakably turned an interview with a journalist into a lecherous encounter 30 years ago did speak to a pattern of behavior with women. I kept it to myself for all the above reasons and more: It was a deeply uncomfortable moment personally and professionally; I had no desire to become part of the story; it was just one data point; back at the time, my 20-something self hadn’t really understood that a man was not entitled to treat me that way.

But then, in May, the New York Times ran a front-page article about how Trump was regularly inappropriate with women. The stories sounded more than a little familiar, and when Trump took to Twitter and called them “a fraud,” I took to my keyboard to testify that they were not.

It sounds like Tasha Dixon had a similar moment. She has said nothing since she competed in 2001 at the age of 18. And she would not have spoken up yesterday, she says, if not for the release of a tape of a 2005 Howard Stern show in which Trump brags of doing exactly what Dixon, then Miss Arizona, saw. “I’ll go backstage before a show and everyone’s getting dressed,” he said. “No men are anywhere. And I’m allowed to go in because I’m the owner of the pageant. And therefore, I’m inspecting it. … You know, they’re standing there with no clothes. Is everybody OK? And you see these incredible-looking women. And so I sort of get away with things like that.”

Those words, Dixon says, were her tipping point. “Who do you complain to?” she said, explaining why she didn’t do so in real time. “He owns the pageant. There’s no one to complain to. Everyone there works for him.”

For Jessica Leeds, in turn, her tipping point came while she was home watching the second presidential debate on Sunday night. Anderson Cooper was pressing Trump about whether he actually did the things — kissing women and grabbing at women without consent — that he had bragged about to “Access Hollywood” host Billy Bush.

When Trump said, “No, I have not,” Leeds felt like “I wanted to punch the screen,” she told the Times.

Instead, she decided to go public, and allow the world to question her veracity, her motivation and her timing.