By Sara Murray, CNN
Updated: Tue, 26 Oct 2021 11:13:19 GMT
Donald Trump is throwing his support behind a trio of candidates whose troubled pasts have come under scrutiny, as he continues to influence the standards of the GOP from his post-presidency perch.
In Georgia, Trump has wholeheartedly endorsed former football star Herschel Walker for Senate, even though he's faced allegations of threatening multiple women over the span of a decade. In Ohio, Trump is backing former senior White House adviser Max Miller for Congress -- even as he faces allegations of abuse from his ex-girlfriend, former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. And in Pennsylvania, Trump threw his support behind retired Army captain Sean Parnell, who is embroiled in a custody battle with an estranged wife who previously obtained two temporary protection from abuse orders against him.
None of these issues, which have been documented in interviews, court filings and police records, have dissuaded Trump.
"President Trump is proud to endorse patriots who love our country and will put America First, and he will not be dissuaded from supporting great candidates due to false smear campaigns by the Fake News media," Trump spokesperson Liz Harrington said.
Football great allegedly threatened multiple women
In Georgia, Trump has already appeared on the campaign trail alongside Walker, a former University of Georgia football player who has faced allegations of threatening multiple women.
"You know, Herschel is not only a Georgia hero, he is an American legend," Trump said at a September rally with Walker. "Herschel has been one of the greatest athletes in America and I know he will go down also as one of the greatest senators in America."
In a 2008 interview with CNN, Walker spoke openly about struggling with mental illness and the violent and disturbing thoughts he had. Walker said had been diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, which was previously known as multiple personality disorder.
"You can get angry, but the anger that you can go out and really, really hurt someone, and that's when you know you got a problem," Walker told CNN at the time.
His ex-wife, Cindy Grossman, detailed her violent encounters with Walker in a 2008 interview as well. She said he had threatened her with guns as well as knives. In one instance, he held a straight razor to her throat and threatened to kill her.
Grossman described the first time he held a gun to her head. "He held the gun to my temple and said he was going to blow my brains out," she said in 2008.
At the time, Walker did not deny the incidents, but he said he could not remember them and noted that blackouts are among the symptoms of his illness.
Another woman -- a friend of Grossman's -- also told police in the early 2000s that Walker had made "threats to her" and had "her house watched," according to a police report obtained by CNN.
Walker's campaign noted he has gotten help since his allegedly violent incidents in the early 2000s. And in the 2008 interview, Walker described seeking out treatment, including seeing a therapist.
"Since getting help, Herschel has dedicated his life to helping others and has visited hundreds of military bases, hospitals, and non-profits sharing his own story with troops and other Americans," said Mallory Blount, a spokeswoman for Walker's campaign. "It is sad that many in politics and the media who praised Herschel for his transparency over a decade ago are now making false statements, stereotyping, attacking, and attempting to sensationalize his past just because he is a Republican Senate candidate."
Another allegation against Walker arose years later. Myka Dean, who told police she had a romantic relationship with Walker, said he had threatened to kill her, according to a 2012 police report. According to the report, Dean said Walker told her he was "going to 'blow his head off' after he killed her."
Walker's campaign vehemently denied the claims involving Dean.
"These baseless allegations are surfacing a decade later purely for political mudslinging, which is irresponsible and wrong," said Blount, the campaign spokeswoman.
Dean died in 2019. In a statement from her mother, provided by the Walker campaign, Dean's mother said, "This is the first any of us knew about this. We are very proud of the man Herschel Walker has become."
If the allegations against Walker are disconcerting to other GOP leaders, few are speaking out.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently downplayed the allegations of abuse against Walker in an interview with Politico.
"There are some things written that indicate he's had some challenges in his life. On the other hand, the good news is, he's made several impressive performances on national television," McConnell told Politico. "I think there's every indication he's going to be a good candidate."
Trump has a track record of embracing prominent figures who have faced allegations of misconduct against women.
In 2017, Trump endorsed Roy Moore for Senate during a special election in Alabama, even though multiple women had accused Moore of molesting or sexually assaulting them when they were teenagers and he was in his 30s. Moore denied the allegations and went on to lose the election.
And Trump has faced allegations of his own. During his 2016 presidential campaign, more than a dozen women came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against him. He denied them all and used their claims to try to cast himself as the victim.
"I am [a] victim of one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country," Trump claimed at a 2016 rally in North Carolina.
"Donald Trump has gravitated toward some people with real skeletons and scandals in their pasts," said CNN political commentator S.E. Cupp, noting Trump's prior endorsement of Moore. "There definitely seems to be a different tolerance level, and that's both inside the party and among voters, among Republican voters. I think once they swallowed Trump, that sort of conditioned the environment to kind of accept anything."
Ruth Glenn, CEO and president of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said America is still failing at treating women equitably and holding people in positions of power accountable for their actions toward women.
"I don't think we have a level of awareness about violence against women, what it looks like, what the dynamics are, how it can be insidious within our culture and be acceptable," Glenn said. "What we hear as the underlying message is we -- survivors and particularly women -- don't matter."
Ohio congressional endorsement feels like a 'gut punch'
Grisham, who served as Trump's White House press secretary from 2019 to 2020, described it as a "gut punch" and said it "kicked me in the teeth" when she saw the former President endorse Miller, her ex-boyfriend, for Congress.
"You have the opportunity to elect an incredible patriot to congress, who I know very well," Trump told the crowd at an Ohio rally in June. "Max Miller, you know Max? Great guy. He loves our country. He loves the people of Ohio."
When Trump first endorsed Miller back in February, Grisham said she had already disclosed to the former President and his wife, Melania Trump, that her relationship with Miller had become abusive -- a claim Miller has denied.
"I had an ex that I dated and there was abuse in every way there," Grisham told CNN's Jake Tapper. "And that's something I actually told the President and the first lady about, and they did nothing. If it didn't affect them, and as long as I was keeping quiet and being good, then I guess that kind of behavior was OK."
Grisham has not referred to Miller by name when discussing the abuse, instead describing him as an ex-boyfriend whose congressional bid has been endorsed by Trump.
"The endorsement, really, it kicked me in the teeth," she told CNN. "That was a really, really tough one, based on what happened."
In the wake of those claims, Miller has denied the abuse and filed a defamation suit against Grisham.
"Ms. Grisham's allegations that Mr. Miller was violent and physically abusive towards her are absolutely untrue," said Larry Zukerman, an attorney for Miller. Zukerman described Grisham as "unemployed and unbelievable" and accused her of using deceitful claims to promote her newly released book.
Asked about the defamation lawsuit, Grisham told CNN, "I want to respect the legal process so don't want to comment other than to say the lawsuit is an attempt at intimidation, which is right out of the Trump playbook."
Messy divorce becomes a political weapon in Pennsylvania
In Pennsylvania, Trump has elevated another candidate with a tumultuous backstory.
"Come on up here," Trump said at a September rally in Pennsylvania, welcoming Parnell on stage. "Sean Parnell, who has my complete and total endorsement."
Parnell, who is running in a GOP primary for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania, has been embroiled in a messy divorce that has evolved into a deeply personal line of attack against his campaign.
Jeff Bartos, one of Parnell's Republican opponents, and an aligned super PAC have tried to use two temporary protection from abuse orders filed against Parnell by his estranged wife as political weapons.
"We know that Parnell's wife placed multiple 911 calls leading to protection from abuse order is being filed against Parnell, but now Parnell is trying to silence his wife with a gag order to stop her from talking about what happened," proclaimed one television ad from a pro-Bartos super PAC.
When the protection from abuse orders first came to light, Parnell slammed the Bartos campaign in a statement provided to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
"Jeff Bartos is a desperate liar, plain and simple," Parnell said in a statement to the newspaper. "Bartos' allegations are horrific lies and all the evidence proves it. Not only does he know full well that these allegations are provably false, but his willingness to spread these lies without any consideration for the damage he's doing to my three young kids is utterly disgusting. It takes a truly dishonorable 'man' to stoop this low just to score a few cheap political points."
Parnell's campaign declined to comment for this story. But in a campaign release Monday, Parnell's team claimed the "smear campaign" against him was failing.
Parnell's wife, Laurie Snell, filed the orders in 2017 and 2018, according to sheriff's department records. One was withdrawn under a mutual agreement from both parties and a judge declined to extend the 2018 order, according to people familiar with the situation. The orders -- which lasted only a few days -- and the allegations that prompted them have been expunged from court records.
In order to obtain a temporary protection from abuse order, a person has to claim they have been abused or threatened with abuse, according to Butler County documents and attorneys who spoke to CNN.
"There has to be a current fear and there has to have been some threat of harm or previous harm," said Susan Pearlstein, a senior attorney with Philadelphia Legal Assistance. "It's not based on how someone else would feel -- it's this person in this circumstance, do they have a reasonable fear of imminent harm."
A lawyer for Snell declined to comment on the circumstances that led to the protection from abuse orders but noted that Parnell had been "excluded from the home where she and their children have resided since 2018."
The documents from the sheriff's department show that Parnell was required to relinquish his firearms under both protection from abuse orders and, in one case, he was required to leave the family home.
In Butler County, temporary orders are granted with only one party -- the person alleging abuse -- present. A hearing later takes place with both parties, according to the sheriff's office.
Sarah Katz, an associate clinical professor of law at Temple University, said there is a robust debate in the legal community about whether such protection orders are over or under-utilized.
"Are there examples we can point to of people misusing the process? Sure. There are always going to be people misusing the process," Katz said. "I don't believe there's some rampage of people that are doing that."
As Bartos and his allies seized on the issues surrounding Parnell's personal life and local media outlets began reporting on the issues, Parnell asked a judge in mid-September to seal his ongoing custody case and prevent his estranged wife from discussing it.
In a court filing, Parnell noted he was running for Senate and pointed to stories that were published about the protection from abuse orders. He told the court he feared the details surrounding the case "will cause embarrassment, unnecessary scrutiny and negative issues for the parties' minor children."
A judge declined to seal the case, except for in certain circumstances involving information about Parnell's children.
Jennifer Gilliland Vanasdale, a lawyer for Snell, cheered the judge's ruling.
"The powerful and influential are not entitled to special treatment and they should not be permitted to silence others," Vanasdale said.