Joni Ernst says she was raped, is survivor of domestic violence

Senator says she was 'forced out as a survivor'

By SOPHIE TATUM, CNN
Steve Pope/Getty Images

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa

(CNN) - Republican Sen. Joni Ernst said Wednesday that she was "forced out as a survivor" of mental and physical abuse by her former husband and that she was raped by a boyfriend in college, following the public reporting of her divorce papers earlier this week.

Ernst, the highest ranking woman in Republican Senate leadership and an Army combat veteran, spoke publicly for the first time about her experiences while in her home state of Iowa, following several media reports based on statements from her divorce filing, which she said required her to address the issues before she was ready.

"I didn't want to share it with anybody, and in the era of #MeToo survivors, I always believed that every person is different and they will confront their demons when they're ready," Ernst said in an interview with Bloomberg published Wednesday. "And I was not ready."

In the interview, Ernst described for the first time publicly in detail a violent episode where her then-husband Gail Ernst "grabbed me by the throat" and "pounded" her head.

"He turned around at the landing, and he grabbed me by the throat with his hands and threw me on the landing floor," Ernst told the publication. "And then he pounded my head ... on the landing. It was very sudden and very violent. It scared me."

She denied the allegation her husband made in the divorce affidavit that she had had an affair, something else that had been reported earlier this week.

"There was no affair," she told Bloomberg. "The entire affidavit made me sick. It was just one lie after another."

CNN has attempted to reach out to Gail Ernst for response to his ex-wife's allegations and has not yet received a response.

Joni Ernst also told Bloomberg she had a relationship while a student at Iowa State University in which she had suffered physical and sexual abuse and was raped. She ended the relationship after calling the campus sexual assault counseling center's hotline and did not report the rape to police.

Earlier this week, CityView -- an alternative paper in Des Moines, Iowa -- as well as The Guardian reported details from Ernst's divorce filing, which at the time was part of public record. According to those reports, Ernst stated in the filing that she was a victim of mental and verbal abuse by her former husband, and described an incident where she was the victim of a physical assault. Ernst stated that following the assault, a victim's advocate wanted to take her to a hospital. Following the reporting of those records, the filing was sealed. CNN has not reviewed court documents related to Ernst's divorce.

Speaking to the media following a tour of Boone County Hospital, Sen. Ernst also said that the divorce documents were intended to be sealed, and that she was "was completely caught off guard" when they were released.

"What I want to remind everybody is I'm still the same person as I was a week ago, the only difference is you know more about me now than you did a week ago," Ernst told reporters, while appearing to hold back tears, according to CNN affiliate KCCI.

On Wednesday, Ernst said that going forward, "people will view my work in those areas not as a senator that is working to support them, but now as somebody who has been in that situation that will be supporting them."

Ernst also noted that she has worked as an advocate for sexual assault and domestic abuse survivors throughout her career, dating back to her time in college.

"I have always been a strong proponent of working for those survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence. I had even spent time in college, you know, prior to this incident, working with those survivors as a volunteer at the assault care center," she said.

Ernst has also worked to combat military sexual assault, including sponsoring legislation with a Democratic counterpart, then-Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat.

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