WASHINGTON • In a tearful Oval Office ceremony, President Donald Trump signed on Wednesday landmark legislation pushed by two Missouri politicians aimed at curbing online sex trafficking — but not without a tinge of election-year drama.
The bipartisan Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act was sponsored in the House by Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, but was also made possible by investigating and legislating work by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.
Wagner was the prominent face at the signing ceremony, but McCaskill, who faces a tough re-election challenge this year, was not invited. The snub of McCaskill raised criticism from a Republican senator who worked with McCaskill on an investigation of the website Backpage that helped lead to the legislation.
Backpage, which was the most prominent but not the only site targeted by this legislation, has been shut down by the Justice Department, and seven executives of the site were indicted earlier this week in Phoenix on federal money laundering and conspiracy to facilitate prostitution charges.
At the signing, Trump was surrounded by Wagner and six other members of Congress who had worked on the bill, along with victims of online sex trafficking. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, primary Senate sponsors, were the only two senators.
Several of the victims and a surviving parent of a 16-year-old woman killed while being trafficked online wiped away tears throughout the ceremony.
Wagner did, too, and at one point gently stroked the arm of a woman who identified herself as Jessica, 23, who says she was trafficked online.
“I’m beyond happy,” Jessica, now the mother of two, said later, standing in Lafayette Park across from the White House with her mother, Nacole. Jessica said that she hoped the new law would prevent others from being trafficked online as she was.
The legislation came after a multi-year effort by both Wagner and McCaskill.
“To watch this kind of perfect storm happen — it is amazing to have this signed into law,” Wagner told the Post-Dispatch.
Trump highlighted the bipartisan nature of the legislation — it passed the House and Senate overwhelmingly — and said he wondered what had taken so long.
Turning to the victims, he said: “I’m signing this bill in your honor. … You have endured what no person on earth should have to endure.”
His daughter Ivanka, who convened a White House meeting on the issue and tweeted her support for the legislation, stood near the back of the group.
The legislation amends the 1996 Communications Decency Act to give state and local prosecutors more power to go after online sex traffickers, and to give victims more power to sue the websites that advertise the sex trade. That original law, signed in the internet’s formative days, was designed to protect online sites from legal actions involving others’ speech, and courts had generally upheld protection for sites such as Backpage.
But Wagner, McCaskill and others argued that the ability of online advertisers to offer sex with children or illegal prostitution should not be protected under that umbrella. The internet had evolved into a host for “modern day slavery,” Wagner said.
“It was never Congress’s intention to make a red-light district out of the internet,” Wagner said.
But Trump’s own Justice Department and some online associations and activists raised concerns about the bill’s constitutionality. Some victims-rights activists say they are worried that by shutting down visible sites such as Backpage, the sex trade will be driven further underground in what is often referred to as “the dark web.”
Several other sites, including Craigslist, have shut down or changed “adult” sections.
McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor in Kansas City, issued a statement saying that the law “brings to a close an era when malicious actors like Backpage could hide behind an outdated law that gave them license to knowingly facilitate sex trafficking of children online.”
She noted that “for nearly two years, Sen. Portman and I investigated a powerful company that went all the way to the Supreme Court to resist our investigation and prevent us from making public the damning findings that could arm local prosecutors and law enforcement.”
That was a reference to a scathing report that McCaskill and Portman issued last year showing that beyond just hosting ads, Backpage employees were advising posters on ways to hide potentially illegal activity in the language they used. Information disclosed in that report was a large part of the basis of the federal government’s indictment this week, Portman told the Post-Dispatch.
“Backpage has been around for 14 years and (DOJ) didn’t do anything until we gave them the information,” Portman said. “You look at their indictment, you will see a striking similarity to our report.”
McCaskill and Portman forced the first contempt of Congress citation in two decades against Backpage when its principals refused to cooperate in the investigation. The online site appealed all the way to the nation’s highest court, but lost.
Portman said that all this bipartisan work should have earned McCaskill an invitation to Wednesday’s signing, a point he said he’d tried to make in the days leading into the ceremony. A White House spokesman didn’t respond to queries as to why the Missouri senator was not there.
Asked if he thought election-year politics played into keeping McCaskill off the invitation list, Portman responded: “I can’t say that for a fact. But what I can say is that she was my partner in the investigation that led to the information we needed to write a good bill.”