Her argument barely took flight before it started to wobble.
The national spokesperson for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign argued on Wednesday that Trump could not possibly have groped a woman aboard an airplane because seats in the first-class cabin had fixed armrests in the early 1980s.
A CNN panel burst into laughter when Katrina Pierson, who has been with the Trump team since November 2015, invoked what critics have dubbed the “aviation defense.”
Panel moderator Don Lemon had asked Pierson if she believed Jessica Leeds’ account of being sexually assaulted aboard a New York-bound airliner three decades ago. Leeds recently told the New York Times that Trump lifted his armrest, grabbed her breasts, and attempted to put his hand up her skirt when they sat next to each other in first class.
“I do not believe it at all. It is 100 percent, patently false and, as I was saying, this is the exact same New York Times that tried the same stunt back in March and then those women came forward and debunked that article,” Pierson responded.
Then Pierson started discussing what kinds of airplanes were around when the alleged sexual assault occurred. She said that in the early ’80s, the only commercial jet airliners available were the McDonnell Douglas DC-9, the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, the McDonnell Douglas MD-80, and perhaps the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar. But, she continued, the flight was heading to New York, so Trump and Leeds couldn’t have been aboard the DC-10 or the L-1011.
Pierson said that the armrests for first-class passengers aboard all the remaining possible planes did not move and suggested that this would have somehow prevented Trump from being able to reach over to the passenger seated beside him.
“First-class seats have fixed armrests, so what I can tell you about her story is, if she was groped on a plane, it wasn’t by Donald Trump and it certainly wasn’t in first class,” she said.
“How could it happen?” Pierson continued. “Explain how that happens. There are fixed seats on first class.”
Phil Derner Jr., the founder of NYCAviation, a website for airplane enthusiasts, told Yahoo News that the aircraft types she mentioned flew into all New York City-area airports back then.
“Even larger aircraft like the DC-10 or the L-1011, as big as they were, did fly into what many would consider to be a smaller airport like LaGuardia,” Derner said. “In fact, those aircraft types were built for smaller airports like LaGuardia. I don’t fully understand where she got that information, but that is simply incorrect.”
He also said there were aircraft back then that had adjustable armrests, some in coach and some in first class.
“Some armrests did move,” he said.
Amid laughter at Pierson’s argument, Lemon said he would not argue with her about the type of plane because they did not have that information.
“I just gave you the options,” Pierson said, unperturbed.
Robert J. Valli Jr. and James A. Vagnini, who are civil rights and employment discrimination attorneys in New York, said the armrest could be a relevant issue if Leeds brings her allegations against Trump to a court of law before the statute of limitations runs out.
“That would be an interesting defense as part of her testimony that an armrest was lifted in order to gain this access,” Valli said in a phone interview with Yahoo News. “So the parties would be able to inspect the plane that was used at that time. There are different types of planes, different types of first-class structures. As a plaintiff, you’d want to identify that plane — if not, the various options of planes that were available.”
Vagnini dismissed the notion that the armchair defense is a red herring, something that misleads from the issue at hand.
“I wouldn’t call it a red herring. It would be a legitimate argument that a defense attorney would make in respect to a claim of sexual harassment,” he told Yahoo News.
Four women accused Trump of sexual assault in various news stories published Wednesday night. Rachel Crooks told her story alongside Leeds for the Times piece; Natasha Stoynoff wrote about her encounter with Trump for People magazine; and Mindy McGillivray said in the Palm Beach Post that he groped her. Temple Taggart, a former Miss Utah, had already been on record with her allegations against Trump.
The billionaire tycoon’s behavior around women came under focus last week after a taped conversation of his bragging about how his celebrity status allowed him to “get away with” touching women’s genitals. At the second presidential debate, Trump claimed that this was merely “locker-room talk” and “just words.”
Former beauty pageant queens in the Miss USA and Miss Universe competitions recently said that Trump would walk into their dressing room while some girls were topless or naked. A conversation Trump had with shock-jock Howard Stern in 2005 appears to confirm that allegation.
After the Times article was published, Jason Miller, the senior communications adviser for the Trump campaign, released a statement accusing the paper of launching a false, coordinated character assassination against the candidate.
“To reach back decades in an attempt to smear Mr. Trump trivializes sexual assault, and it sets a new low for where the media is willing to go in its efforts to determine this election,” Miller wrote. “It is absurd to think that one of the most recognizable business leaders on the planet with a strong record of empowering women in his companies would do the things alleged in this story, and for this to only become public decades later in the final month of a campaign for president should say it all.”