Sen. Joni Ernst claims husband assaulted her, denies allegation of affair

/ CBS/AP

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, of Iowa, denied allegations leveled by her ex-husband that she had an affair with a subordinate while she served in the military. In divorce documents, she also accused her husband of physically assaulting her during an argument when she confronted him about an affair in 2007 or 2008, before she was elected to the Senate.

And in her first interview since the details of her divorce were divulged, Ernst, the fourth-ranking Senate Republican, also told Bloomberg News that she had been raped in college by someone she knew, making her one of the highest-profile women in her party to allege assaults in the era of the #MeToo movement.

The Iowa Republican answered questions from reporters about the divorce allegations on Wednesday at a town hall at the University of Northern Iowa campus in Cedar Falls, the Des Moines Register reported.

In the court documents, Ernst's ex-husband, Gail Ernst, accused her of having an affair with one of her soldiers while she was deployed as a company commander. She denied the allegation, telling Bloomberg's Jennifer Jacobs that she had become close to the soldier when he helped her while she was gravely ill, but "there was no affair." She told reporters Wednesday that she cares "about all of my soldiers."

Ernst also accused her ex-husband in divorce documents of having several affairs during their marriage and physically assaulting her during an argument over a woman she accused him of seeing. Ernst told Jacobs that her husband "grabbed me by the throat with his hands and threw me on the landing floor." Then, he "pounded my head…on the landing. It was very sudden and very violent," Ernst said.

Gail Ernst denied in court documents that he had an affair, but the abuse allegations were not addressed. A working phone number for him could not be found, and his attorney on Tuesday declined to comment. The Ernsts' divorce papers were made public once their divorce was finalized this month. They have since mostly been resealed at Sen. Ernst's request. She said Wednesday at the Iowa event that she believed the court documents would be sealed from the public and was caught off guard by news reports on the allegations.

In an emotional interview with the Des Moines Register, Ernst said she has always been a strong supporter of survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. She said people will now likely view that work as coming from not just a lawmaker but also a survivor of abuse.

"What I want to remind everybody is that I'm still the same person I was a week ago," she said, her voice breaking as she sought to hold back tears. "The only difference is that you know more about me now than you did a week ago."

Ernst, 48, plans to run for a second six-year Senate term in 2020.

First published on January 24, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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