After insisting he never engaged in sexual harassment and claiming that he is the victim of "a witch hunt," Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain appeared to shift his story on Monday, offering details about a financial settlement that he initially said was reached without his knowledge.
Speaking with reporters outside PBS studios late on Monday, Cain offered details about what he described as an innocuous encounter with one of the women who accused him of sexual harassment while he headed the National Restaurant Association. He also described negotiations leading to a settlement reached with one of his accusers, whom he said left the association with "several months severance." At the National Press Club earlier in the day, Cain said he was "unaware of any settlement."
Cain's comments amounted to the latest iteration of what appears to be a shifting strategy to respond to the story, first reported in Politico, that he was accused to sexual harassment by two female subordinates at the National Restaurant Association, which Cain headed for three years in the 1990s. After initially refusing to directly respond to the allegations on Sunday, Cain and his associates issued unequivocal denials on Monday morning. But Cain's protestations at the National Press Club that he did not know of any settlement were contradicted by his own statements to interviewers later in the day.
While few leading Republicans rushed to Cain's defense, one exception was former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, who told conservative talk-show host Laura Ingraham that he believes the story was planted by a rival campaign. “I would almost guarantee that," Huckabee said. "People who are in campaigns typically when they have got enough money to do it, they will hire investigators, opposition researchers, they will dig through everything.”
At the National Press Club, Cain flatly proclaimed his innocence.
"I have never sexually harassed anyone and those accusations are totally false," he said Asked whether he believes any of his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination are behind the allegations, the former pizza executive said he is unaware of the genesis of the report.
"We have no idea the source of this witch hunt, which is what it really is," he said.
After more than 12 hours in which neither he nor his campaign directly denied the charges, first reported by Politico, Cain fired back with unequivocal rebuttals on Monday morning. “Yes, I was falsely accused while I was at the National Restaurant Association,” he said in an interview on Fox News. “I say falsely. It turned out after investigation, it was baseless.” NBC News, meanwhile, reported that is has confirmed that one woman received a settlement from the National Restaurant Association after complaining about inappropriate conduct."
At the National Press Club, Cain suggested that he has a "bull's-eye on my back" because of his sudden rise in ths polls. "As a result of yesterday's news story, I really know what it's like to be No. 1," he quipped.
Cain did not address the Politico report in his prepared remarks, which focused largely on his tax plan. But when the event moderator made it the subject of his first question, Cain said he welcomed the chance to respond. "I would be delighted to clear the air," he said.
The public-relations crisis did not appear to have dampened Cain’s ebullience and rhetorical bravado. Asked if he believes racism still exists in America, the only African-American in the GOP presidential field said: “This many white people can’t pretend they like me!”
At the request of the event’s moderator, Cain closed out the National Press Club appearance with a song – an a cappella rendition of the hymn “He Looked Beyond My Faults” that brought the packed audience of about 300 people to its feet in an ovation.
The Republican presidential candidate, who has rocketed from the back of the pack to become a top-tier candidate, denied on Fox and at the National Press Club that he was aware that the women had reached any kind of settlement with the restaurant association. He said he has no plans to ask the National Restaurant Association to release its records of the event. "We're not going to chase anonymous sources," he said.
“I wasn’t even aware of it, and I hope it wasn’t for much, because nothing happened. So if there was a settlement, it was handled by some of the other officers that worked for me at the association. So the answer is, absolutely not,” he said.
Asked by Fox whether more allegations would surface, Cain replied: “First of all, as I indicated, the only other allegations will be trumped-up allegations. There is nothing else.
“Secondly, what you can expect from my campaign is for me to stay on message, for us to continue to do the things and execute our strategy in order to win the nomination. Now, obviously, some people are going to be turned off by this cloud that someone wanted to put over my camp, but a lot of people aren't going to be turned off. We'll just have to wait and see what happens. But let me just say one more time … I have never sexually harassed anyone -- anyone -- and, absolutely, these are false accusations.”
Cain's comments come a day after Politico reported allegations on Sunday that two female employees who worked for the former Godfather's Pizza executive at the national Restaurant Association alleged inappropriate behavior by Cain in the 1990s. His campaign told the publication that he was “vaguely familiar” with the incident, but in a statement painted it as a media attempt to derail the accelerating “Cain train.”
Cain is in Washington this week for a series of speeches and meetings with members of Congress. At the American Enterprise Institute on Monday morning for a long-planned discussion of his "9-9-9" economic plan, which calls for flat, 9 percent taxes on personal income, businesses, and consumer goods, Cain declined to discuss the Politico report saying, “I’ll take all the arrows later.”
He also emphasized during his morning appearance at the think tank that he is not a typical candidate for president. “By the way folks, yes, I am an unconventional candidate; and yes, I do have a sense of humor -- and some people have a problem with that,” Cain said. “But to quote my chief of staff and all the people around this country, 'Let Herman be Herman,' and Herman is gonna stay Herman. Thank you very much.”
Mark Block, Cain's campaign manager, said on MSNBC’s Daily Rundown, “Mr. Cain has never sexually harassed anyone. Period. End of story.… I would suggest that you contact the National Restaurant Association. I am not personally aware of any settlement.”
Cain said earlier he believes he is being attacked by inside-the-Beltway media because of his ideas. “When you have the best plan on the table, expect to be attacked,” he said.
Politico said that two women working at the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s left their jobs at the trade group after complaining of "sexually suggestive behavior" by Cain. The publication cited a number of anonymous sources, who said they received financial payments from the association and signed agreements not to discuss their departures.
Olga Belogolova contributed contributed to this article.