Nearly thirty years ago, E. Jean Carroll, then 52, met Donald Trump, then 49, at Bergdorf Goodman in New York City. As she remembers it, she ran into Trump on her way out of the store, and he asked Carroll for help buying a gift for a woman. Carroll suggested a bag or a hat. They ended up in a dressing room together with the door closed when Trump forcefully kissed Carroll, pulled down her tights, and sexually assaulted her. She says that the incident lasted less than three minutes.
In her book, What Do We Need Men For?, she explains why, for 30 years, she told no one other than her two closest friends. Then on June 21, 2019, Carroll wrote an article for New York magazine’s The Cut titled “Hideous Men,” further elaborating on her reasons for waiting all that time: “Receiving death threats, being driven from my home, being dismissed, being dragged through the mud, and joining the 15 women who’ve come forward with credible stories about how the man grabbed, badgered, belittled, mauled, molested, and assaulted them, only to see the man turn it around, deny, threaten, and attack them, never sounded like much fun. Also, I am a coward.”
That same day, Trump dismissed Carroll. “I’ve never met this person in my life. She is trying to sell a new book—that should indicate her motivation.” Carroll was unbowed. And persistent. On Tuesday, after two and a half hours of deliberation, the jury rendered a unanimous verdict: they found Trump liable for defaming and sexually abusing Carroll and ordered him to pay her $5 million.
I texted Carroll’s lawyer, Robbie Kaplan, to ask her what she made of the verdict. Here’s what she said: “No one is above the law, not even a former President of the United States. From surviving Donald Trump’s brutal attack in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room to bravely sharing her story in 2019, Ms. Carroll has never wavered in her strength, courage, and determination to seek justice for both the assault and the damage to her reputation from Trump’s lies. This is a victory not only for E. Jean but for all victims and survivors.”
Meanwhile, Trump was defiant in the face of a CNN Republican Town Hall last night, telling viewers the case was fabricated, a political hit job. He repeated that he did not know Carroll, saying “This woman, I don’t know her. I never met her. I have no idea who she is.”
We asked some of our favorite experts and commentators to weigh in on what the verdict means, and why it matters—not just for the presidential race next year, but for any woman faced with the daunting prospect of bringing a powerful man to account.
Here’s what they said. — BW
THE TRUMP TIPPING POINT?
By Jonah Goldberg
One of the most common mistakes in politics is to make predictions that are nothing more than straight-line projections of the present onto the future. But I’ll do it anyway: in the absence of some significant change, it seems very likely that Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee.
One reason to think this is that many of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters don’t care about any of the allegations—or court-ratified verdicts—against him. He’s a victim and his victimhood bizarrely compels his supporters to vote for him. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) speaks for many when he says the verdict in the E. Jean Carroll case “makes me want to vote for him twice.” (I think this is a perverted and ludicrous reason to vote for somebody.)
Whether ludicrous or not, this view is widespread among Republicans. And since, just as in 2016, Trump needs only a plurality of loyal voters in the primary to win the nomination, he has a good chance of doing so.
Plus, there’s an added layer of dysfunction. While Trump’s die-hard base is relatively small, a larger number of Republicans dislike hearing even the most justified criticisms of Trump because they think that lends aid and comfort to the enemy (i.e., the media, the Democrats, “Never Trump” Republicans, etc.).
Many Republican voters do not know much about the allegations against Trump. They do not watch or read media outlets that report on it. And the outlets they do follow largely report on it in mumbled and “whataboutist” terms. Republican voters need to hear about Trump from Republican politicians who don’t pull their punches.
Now, all of that said, I don’t think the future will necessarily look like the status quo. Future indictments may prove unignorable. Presidential ambition may finally drive some of the current candidates to change course or cause new, more aggressive ones to enter the race. An international or financial crisis is always possible and a recession seems likely. I would not want to bet on a sudden onset of sobriety and seriousness for the GOP base, but I wouldn’t rule it out either.
Moreover, human psychology can change suddenly. There’s a reason why we say “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Straws do not normally break camels’ backs. But the accretion of burdens can lead to tipping points.
Trump’s legal troubles are not over. And, at some point, it’s possible voters just say “there’s always something with this guy.” I think it’s folly for conservatives and Republicans to simply hope for some mass epiphany or deus ex machina to solve the problem. Better to try to shape events toward the future you want. But I’ve been saying that about Republicans for years now, to no avail.
TRUMP CONVICTED HIMSELF
By Lara Bazelon
Donald J. Trump’s undisguised contempt for his accuser—and women more generally—proved to be his undoing. This time his skills at bluster and deflection didn’t get him out of trouble, but sprang the trap.
By the time E. Jean Carroll came forward in 2019 to tell her story of being sexually assaulted by Trump, the statute to bring criminal charges had long run out. But Trump himself started a new clock when he denounced her for perpetrating “a hoax and a lie” and she responded with a defamation suit.
If Trump thought he was safe, he was wrong. Last November, New York State passed a law that allowed people with decades-old sexual assault allegations to bring a civil suit past the normal statute of limitations. Carroll promptly added battery to her existing suit for defamation.
Then Trump kept insulting. He called Carroll a “whack job” who’s “not my type” during a disastrous deposition, in which he was questioned by Carroll’s celebrated attorney Roberta Kaplan. Trump also mistook a photo of Carroll for his second ex-wife, Marla Maples. This gave Kaplan the opening to say, “I take it the three women you’ve married are all your type?” (Trump’s answer: “Yeah.”)
In another gasp-worthy moment, Trump told Kaplan, “You wouldn’t be a choice of mine, either, to be honest. I wouldn’t under any circumstances have any interest in you.”
That was the only version of Trump available to the jury because he skipped out on his own trial. To be clear, his presence was not required—this was a civil case. But his absence was a mistake given the degree of self-inflicted damage and Carroll’s exceptionally strong case.
The jury got an earful of the infamous Access Hollywood tape, which Carroll’s lawyers said amounted to a confession. They also heard testimony from two other women who claimed that Trump had sexually assaulted them, too. This evidence was allowed because the judge ruled that it tended to show a pattern of abuse. In casual-seeming situations, on a plane, in a department store, giving a tour of his mansion, Trump would suddenly pounce, forcing himself on his victims.
Most defense attorneys believe that a client should never testify unless it is absolutely necessary. In sexual assault cases it almost always is. If your client doesn’t talk or have a plausible story to tell, it’s over.
After Trump ghosted, his legal team had no case of its own. Instead, they tried desperately to discredit his accusers with the usual: why didn’t you scream/go to the police/decide that you were ruined and hide in your closet for the rest of your life? That line of questioning doesn’t play well in 2023, particularly when your client—one of the richest and most powerful bullies in the world—is on the record as a pussy-grabbing boor.
E. Jean Carroll is having her moment and rightly so. What she achieved was historic. But as a lifelong litigator, my hero is Roberta Kaplan. In that deposition, she savvily offered up bait she knew Trump lacked the willpower to refuse: chance after chance to treat Carroll, and Kaplan herself, like garbage. Then she made him eat it.
Lara Bazelon is a law professor at the University of San Francisco, where she directs a criminal and racial justice clinic and holds the Barnett Chair in Trial Advocacy. Follow her on Twitter @larabazelon.
A BAD PRECEDENT FOR POLITICS
By Alan Dershowitz
The mixed verdict in the Trump civil case is a Rorschach test: supporters will see vindication from the most serious charge of rape; opponents will see condemnation in the other verdicts and the $5 million in damages for plaintiff E. Jean Carroll.
Objective viewers will see irreconcilable conclusions reflecting a compromise, rejecting the charge of rape but accepting sexual abuse. Civil libertarians will worry about expanding the statute of limitations after it has expired, as happened in this case—because of the difficulties in mounting a defense after so many years.
Trump will surely appeal on various grounds, including the ruling by the judge, who allowed the Access Hollywood tape to be admitted. If a higher court decides this ruling was wrong and prejudicial, they might reverse the verdict—possibly before the 2024 presidential election.
But I see all this as part of a bigger picture involving an overarching tactic: to make it more difficult for Trump to become the next president by inundating him with both civil and criminal investigations and trials. I wrote a book about this called Get Trump: The Threat to Civil Liberties, Due Process, and Our Constitutional Rule of Law, which details all the legal proceedings against the current front-runner for the Republican nomination. I worry about the weaponization of our justice system in the interests of achieving partisan goals.
Ultimately, this verdict might influence independent voters, especially women who care about character as well as policy. But it will not prevent Trump from running for president, or serving as president if elected. And it might lead to another surge in the polls from his supporters. In fact, many Democrats hope this verdict helps Trump secure the Republican nomination, because they believe Biden can beat him in the general election.
Alan Dershowitz is an author, lawyer, and former law professor.
THIS IS A WIN FOR WOMEN
By Ambra Gutierrez
I know it wasn’t easy for E. Jean Carroll to accuse Trump of rape. I know it because I did it myself, eight years ago against the film mogul Harvey Weinstein. Back then, nobody cared about my accusations, even though I reported my assault to the police. I’m sure it was much harder for Carroll to go through an assault nearly 30 years ago when social conventions were different and women were expected to accept whatever happened to them without complaint.
Take it from me: nobody relives their trauma for the fun of it. To go up against a powerful adversary is absolutely terrifying, and I am sure the only reason Carroll pursued her case against Trump is because she was absolutely certain other women had experienced the same abuse at his hands. She wanted to help more women like her come forward. I know it, because that’s what compelled me to do what I did.
In February 2015, I was a 22-year-old model newly arrived in New York when I went to a casting in Harvey Weinstein’s office in Tribeca. Just two minutes into the meeting, he reached up and groped both of my breasts and tried to kiss me, like it was an everyday occurrence. Then his hand was on my leg, creeping up my dress when I backed out of his office and left in shock. I immediately went and found my agent, and we both made a complaint at the police station near Weinstein’s office.
When one officer heard my complaint against Weinstein, he looked up and said, “Again?”
That confirmation of Weinstein’s reputation made me feel even bolder. I always believed that if you do something wrong, you must pay for it.
I collaborated with the police the next day for a sting. I had a microphone on me when I met Weinstein at the Tribeca Grand Hotel and he told me that if I was nice to him, he could boost my career like he had for many other women. He also said he was used to touching women’s breasts, like he had done at my casting. I thought I had all the evidence I needed to prove I had been assaulted, but the Manhattan DA decided against prosecuting my case.
It was only years later, after a New York jury finally sent Weinstein to prison for rape, that my evidence was finally heard in a second trial, in Los Angeles, that led to a second conviction of sexual assault and a 16-year sentence on top of his original 23 years.
Even now, many women are still experiencing what E. Jean Carroll and I went through. It’s important that others find the strength from our stories so that they, too, can come forward and say: “Enough. This has to stop.”
Ambra Gutierrez is a model and activist. Follow her on Twitter @AmbraBattilana.
THERE IS NO EVOLUTIONARY EXCUSE
By Carole Hooven
Donald Trump believes that today’s women not only allow rich and famous men to sexually assault them, but that we’ve inherited this tolerance—even preference—for such behavior from our long-dead evolutionary ancestors. He revealed this when E. Jean Carroll’s attorney Roberta Kaplan asked him whether “it’s true with stars that they can grab women by the pussy?”
Trump replied, “If you look over the last million years I guess that’s been largely true. Not always. But largely true. Unfortunately or fortunately.”
Since anatomically modern humans (Homo sapiens) arrived on the scene only within the last 200,000 years or so, Trump was apparently taking the long view, speaking not just of men today but also of our evolutionary predecessors, like Homo erectus. But probably he was just winging it.
Staying safe and healthy is generally important to reproduction in mammalian females. So for women, a good rule of thumb is to prevent strange men from physically accessing sensitive, vulnerable body parts, especially reproductive organs. So it is not very likely that ancestral women tolerated such behavior.
Still, sexual coercion by males was almost certainly a feature of human evolutionary history, and it does occur in some of our primate relatives like chimps and orangutans. It may also be the case that men have benefited reproductively from believing that women like it when they are sexually coerced.
I understand that none of this is relevant to whether Trump is guilty of breaking the law or even behaving badly, but an evolutionary explanation does not excuse or justify such behavior. Perhaps the last part of Trump’s answer was the most revealing. If the former president is the latest in a million-year tradition of pussy-grabbing, that is unambiguously “unfortunate.”
Carole Hooven is an evolutionary biologist and author of T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone That Dominates and Divides Us. Follow her on Twitter @hoovlet.
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