WASHINGTON — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand got a fight she wants after President Donald Trump lashed out at the New York Democrat in a provocative tweet that claimed she'd begged him for campaign contributions and would "do anything" for them.
Gillibrand, who's up for re-election next year and is considered a possible presidential contender in 2020, has been an outspoken voice in the national debate over how to confront sexual assault and harassment. She's argued that the rules in institutions from Congress to Hollywood to the U.S. military are set to benefit the powerful and the favored at the expense of the vulnerable.
Gillibrand and a chorus of Democrats declared Trump's tweet to be sexually suggestive, an assertion the White House flatly rejected. Appearing Wednesday on NBC's "Today" show, Gillibrand was asked whether she'd misread the meaning of Trump's tweet. "No," she responded.
She said the tweet was "a sexual smear intended to silence me."
The fiery exchange with Trump could brighten the spotlight on Gillibrand's campaign to upend the dynamics and put power in the hands of the victims while simultaneously pushing the 51-year-old mother of two boys to the forefront of an unformed Democratic presidential field.
She's scathed icons in her own party along the way. Gillibrand was appointed to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, but she recently said Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency for his improprieties. That led Clinton loyalists to criticize her as an ungrateful opportunist.
The back-and-forth between Trump and Gillibrand on Tuesday came as a wave of sexual misconduct allegations roils Capitol Hill, forcing several lawmakers out of office in just the last week alone. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he would resign amid an ethics probe into accusations that he sexually harassed several women. Reps. John Conyers, D-Mich., and Trent Franks, R-Ariz., also quit after misconduct accusations surfaced.
"I do think this is a reckoning. This is a watershed moment," Gillibrand said of the resignations in speaking to The Associated Press late last week. "Politicians should be held to the highest standards, not the lowest standards."
And she rejected the notion that she and other Democrats, by demanding Franken and Conyers step aside, are making a calculation they hope will pay off politically as Trump continues to fend off allegations of sexual misconduct lodged over the last year by more than a dozen women.
"That couldn't be more cynical and backward," said Gillibrand, who was one of the first Democrats to call for Franken to step down. "It has nothing to do with politics. This whole debate is, 'Do we care about women.'"
Gillibrand served notice several years ago that combating sexual assault would be her issue. A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, she and other female lawmakers dressed down senior military leaders at a headline-making hearing, insisting sexual assault in the ranks has cost the services the trust and respect of the American people as well as the nation's men and women in uniform.
"Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together," Gillibrand told the uniformed men in 2013.
Four years later, Gillibrand added her voice to the growing number of male senators calling for Trump to resign in the face of multiple accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior. A day after her broadside, Trump singled her out.
The president tweeted: "Lightweight Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a total flunky for Chuck Schumer and someone who would come to my office "begging" for campaign contributions not so long ago (and would do anything for them), is now in the ring fighting against Trump. Very disloyal to Bill & Crooked-USED!"
Gillibrand was at a bipartisan Bible study in the office of Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., when she stepped out to take a call alerting her to Trump's tweet. She fired back, calling the president's tweet a "sexist smear" aimed at silencing her voice. She also renewed her call for a congressional inquiry into the accusations against Trump.
Gillibrand silently shook her head at the idea that she had "begged" Trump for campaign contributions.
Democrats rushed to Gillibrand's defense.
"Are you really trying to bully, intimidate and slut-shame @SenGillibrand?" Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts tweeted back at Trump. "Do you know who you're picking a fight with? Good luck with that."
Senate Republicans steered clear of the latest uproar involving Trump's Twitter account. Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, a frequent Trump critic, was an exception, telling reporters he "didn't think it was appropriate at all."
At the White House, however, Trump's spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said "there's no way" the president's tweet was "sexist at all." She said Trump was talking about a rigged political system and the fact that lawmakers repeatedly plead for money. Federal Election Commission records show Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump donated nearly $8,000 to Gillibrand's congressional campaigns.
Gillibrand, of Dartmouth and UCLA law, has fought since 2013 to overhaul the way the U.S. armed forces deals with allegations of sexual misconduct. A bill she crafted aims to stop sexual assaults by stripping senior U.S. military officers of their responsibilities to decide whether to prosecute sexual assault cases and giving that authority to seasoned military trial lawyers.
But the Pentagon has stridently opposed the change and the bill has remained stalled.