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Trump the Defamer

Former president abused E. Jean Carroll

The day after a Manhattan jury held Donald J. Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming writer E. Jean Carroll nearly three decades earlier, the former president came out swinging on a CNN broadcast from St. Anselm College in New Hampshire. “She’s a whack job,” he said.

“This is a fake story, a made-up story,” he insisted.

The paltry bit of feminist satisfaction I and millions of other American women had felt when the verdict came down suddenly seemed transitory. How much of a victory was the verdict if the perpetrator could come out with statements like this mere hours after it was delivered?

The jury of six men and three women had awarded Carroll $5 million in damages, including almost $3 million for the reputational damage she suffered by the former president’s public statements against her. Another $2 million was awarded because the jury believed the evidence that Trump had sexually abused Carroll at an encounter at a department store in New York City. Appearing on MSNBC, Carroll called the verdict a victory for all women because “we did away with the perfect victim concept.” That imaginary perfect victim, Carroll added, “always screams” and “writes the date in her diary.”

The triumph of Carroll’s words already seemed distant by the time Trump made his statements at the CNN event. It seems unclear whether the verdict, like so many short-lived victories of the post- #MeToo moment, was a singular event. Was it really evidence of a cultural transformation in which women seeking civil redress for assault are no longer saddled with burdensome if not impossible standards of proof—and irreproachable character—in order to prevail against the men that they accuse? A cynical assessment would be that this is simply another round in the nation’s polarized politics, in which misogyny has become a totem for a Trump-led GOP. After the verdict, Alabama Republican Senator Tommy Tuberville told HuffPost “it makes me want to vote for him twice.”

Was it really evidence of a cultural transformation in which women seeking civil redress for assault are not saddled with burdensome if not impossible standards of proof?

And, as usual with Trump’s legal entanglements, this one may drag out in court. Since the verdict was delivered in U.S. District Court, it could theoretically be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. While the points of fact delivered by the jury cannot be reversed, points of law are fair game for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and eventually the Supreme Court itself. Trump’s lawyer Joe Tacopina filed notice of appeal last Thursday.

Trump apologist and emeritus Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz provided a preview of the issues that are likely to be raised on appeal. They include the extension of the statute of limitations—New York’s one-year “lookback window”—that permitted Carroll to bring the lawsuit so long after the statutory limit otherwise would have expired. Then there is the judge’s ruling that the jurors in the case would remain anonymous even to the lawyers. Finally, there was the admission of the Access Hollywood tape, which Trump’s lawyers argued was not relevant to the issue at hand (despite the fact that it speaks directly to Trump’s beliefs regarding what a celebrity is able to do to women). But for all the issues that Dershowitz and other Trump shills will gripe about, Trump’s lawyers presented a feeble defense that did little more than to attack Carroll’s credibility. They did it in the sniveling and mean-spirited flavor of their client, a fact that probably didn’t help Trump’s case. While jurors did not find Trump liable for rape, the fact that a former president was found liable for sexual abuse based on a victim’s testimony (corroborated by two witnesses-friends of Carroll whom she called and told about the assault shortly after it happened) made history.

The impact on the GOP and ultimately Trump’s candidacy is likely to be significant. As the results of the midterms have already shown, a key bloc of voters has been angered by the GOP’s war on women’s reproductive rights. Those frustrations have likely only been exacerbated by the recent attempts to ban the abortion pill via the actions of Trump-appointed activist judges. Those attacks on women’s freedom are cheered by the evangelical wing of the GOP—and now the MAGA faction is offering up its own misogyny in its refusal to believe a woman’s testimony of sexual assault by their hero, the former president himself.

If the case climbs the appellate ladder it could end up in front of Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was himself accused of sexual assault. Clarence Thomas, having been accused of sexual harassment, is an almost-sure vote for Trump, as is Samuel Alito, who is as predictable a GOP partisan as anyone on the court. If there was any doubt whatsoever about how the GOP feels about women having full and equal rights, this year will be an adventure in misogyny in its many varied forms. Even though a whole handful of GOP candidates are planning on challenging Trump’s candidacy for the GOP nomination, only one (former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson) has issued a statement that praised the verdict that was delivered in Manhattan. Former New Jersey governor and potential candidate Chris Christie told a conservative radio host that Trump’s claims he didn’t know Carroll were “ridiculous.” But for the most part, those who are planning to run want to oppose Trump while not siding with Carroll. Even Nikki Haley, the first and so far the only female GOP candidate planning to challenge Trump, would only make a cautious statement noting that “I was not on the jury. I am not the judge. I think that both of them had their voices heard.”

It would be fair to say that the GOP has decided that controlling women by refusing them the freedom to make reproductive choices and then disbelieving them when they allege sexual assault are things that they can get behind. Beyond the legal basis of these developments, they present a unique problem for American feminism. Women in red states are being asked to sign on to an agenda that largely asks them to vote against their own self-interest. The results of recent elections in such states as Texas and Georgia revealed that many of them, white women especially, are drinking the GOP KoolAid and voting for MAGA candidates. It is crucial that these women are made aware about the women who are facing serious health consequences as a result of attempts to interfere with medical abortion (temporarily stayed by the U.S. Supreme Court) and as a result of the Dobbs decision. It is essential that women in red states, assailed as they are by an evolving culture of toxic masculinity and religious nationalism, are not allowed to slip away into a retrogressive vision of American life and culture. The Biden Administration would do well to target policies toward this group which is not served well by their state governments, and which would be amenable to a message that does not treat their affinity for MAGA-style conservatism as a foregone conclusion.

E. Jean Carroll’s win in New York City is indeed something to celebrate. According to surveys, one in six American women has been a victim of rape or attempted rape. Those who are included in this statistic and have considered reporting what they endured might take heart in the Manhattan jury’s unanimous belief that Carroll was not telling a “made-up story.” Of course, the record of most perpetrators of such crimes does not include tapes in which they boast of their belief in the sexual availability of all women. When that Access Hollywood tape was first released, I remember ardently wishing that it would stem the tide of support for Trump in the 2016 election. Sadly, it did not do that. The verdict in E. Jean Carroll’s case provides some solace that Trump has in 2023 finally been punished for his belief that he can grab women when and how he wants, and that because of his belief that he is a “star” he can always get away with it.