Famously, Donald Trump once fantasized about committing murder on the street outside his apartment. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” he said, during a 2016 campaign stop in Sioux Center, Iowa. In the recent civil trial that the writer E. Jean Carroll brought against Trump in New York, she didn’t accuse the former President of shooting her outside Trump Tower. She said that he had raped her, just up the block, in the nineteen-nineties. A jury in Manhattan, after listening to the evidence presented to them during the past two weeks, awarded her five million dollars in damages in a civil battery and defamation case. (They stopped short of branding Trump a rapist, settling for a definition of “battery” that includes “sexual abuse.”)
Carroll, a former advice columnist for Elle and media personality, went public with her allegations in 2019, in a New York magazine article, in which she wrote that Trump forced himself on her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room. When she first filed a lawsuit against Trump, a few months after the article ran, he was still the President, and many considered the suit hopeless. How could a private citizen get justice through the courts in a case like this, against Trump of all people? And yet on Tuesday, Carroll was vindicated, in a trial that marks the first time jurors have been tasked with determining whether a former President was a rapist or merely a sexual abuser.
Carroll’s lawyers called Carroll herself to the stand (she was also cross-examined by Trump’s lawyers for two days), and then called two friends whom Carroll told about the encounter with Trump shortly after it happened. They also called two other women who have publicly accused Trump of sexual assault—Jessica Leeds and Natasha Stoynoff—as well as an expert in psychological trauma, and two former employees of Bergdorf Goodman, who both supported elements of Carroll’s account, with one testifying that he had seen Trump in the store. Trump skipped the trial, and his lawyers called no witnesses of their own. Joseph Tacopina, Trump’s lead lawyer, said that his client didn’t need to mount a defense, because his case had “emerged” through cross-examination of Carroll’s witnesses. He also pointed to dredged-up text messages and e-mails in which Carroll’s friends seemed to express concerns and frustrations with her. And he offered a number of implausible counter-theories, such as one in which Carroll and her friends had concocted a scheme to frame Trump based on the plot of a 2012 episode of “Law & Order: SVU.” Carroll’s lawyers made much of Trump’s absence. They also didn’t shy away from politics. Several times during the trial, they played the contents of the “Access Hollywood” tape for the jury, including Trump’s boasts of grabbing women “by the pussy.” During closing arguments, one of Carroll’s lawyers suggested to the jury that they consider the “Access Hollywood” video a “confession.”
“You saw for yourself, E. Jean Carroll wasn’t hiding anything,” Roberta Kaplan, Carroll’s lead lawyer, told the jury on Monday, as the trial reached its conclusion. As her lawyers readily acknowledged, Carroll could not remember exactly what night her encounter with Trump took place. She could find no witnesses who saw the two of them together. And though she told two friends about the assault soon after it occurred, she otherwise kept the story to herself for more than two decades. Trump’s lawyers argued that these gaps undercut Carroll’s credibility. “What they want is for you to hate him enough that you’ll ignore the facts,” Tacopina told the jury during his own summation. Carroll, Tacopina said, was abusing the system, bringing a false claim. “We cannot let her profit to the tune of millions of dollars.” Those lines might have played well with Tacopina’s client, but they didn’t sway the jury, which unanimously found in Carroll’s favor after less than three hours of deliberation. (Trump told Fox News Digital that he plans to appeal, and has “no idea” who Carroll is.)
Trump, despite his denials, appeared to understand the seriousness of Carroll’s claims, as both a legal matter and a political one. “She’s accusing me of rape, of raping her, the worst thing you can do, the worst charge,” he said, in a deposition taken last year. Trump is once again running for President, and recent polling suggests that his opponents in the Republican primaries are wilting in the face of his popularity and the pressure he puts on others to fight on his terms. And yet every month this year has brought escalating legal peril to Trump. Seven years ago, he imagined what his supporters would do if he committed a heinous act on Fifth Avenue. Now it’s no longer hypothetical. It’s a matter of record. ♦