A jury of Trump's peers have judged him – now more voters will, too

Women across America will find it hard to ignore the $5 million verdict against the former president in his case against writer E Jean Carroll

E  Jean Carroll won the sexual assault and defamation civil lawsuit she has brought against Donald Trump in New York, on May 9. EPA
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The verdict in a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday, in which a jury found that former US president Donald Trump had sexually abused and defamed writer E Jean Carroll at a New York City department store in 1996, cut savagely through the veil of nonsense and gaslighting that has come to dominate US political discourse, especially on the right.

While Mr Trump and his lawyers insist that this is a "hoax" and part of "the greatest witchhunt" in the country's history, in fact a jury of his peers has formally held Mr Trump to account for his reprehensible actions. He will have to pay Ms Carroll $5 million even though the jury also held that she had not clearly established that he raped her.

Ms Carroll proved an excellent witness. Though taunted and provoked continuously by Mr Trump's attorneys, who harped on ancient accusations thrown against virtually every rape victim since the dawn of time – for example that she did not scream or immediately file charges with the police – she remained adamant that the attack took place. Given the amount of time that has passed, her account remained impressively consistent.

Two of her friends testified that Ms Carroll called each of them immediately after the alleged attack and told them about the harrowing experience in detail, which strongly corroborates the accusations. One of them recalled imploring Ms Carroll not to go to the police, because Mr Trump would use his financial clout in courts and elsewhere to make her life miserable. It just wasn't worth it, she says she counselled. Ms Carroll first went public with the story in a 2019 book.

Mr Trump's attorneys were in the unenviable position of having to argue that these three women colluded in fabricating a vicious tall tale and hugely perjured themselves to try to inflict political damage on a leader they freely admit despising. But they were unable to provide any rational explanation for why these women would do such a thing beyond sharing a highly negative view of the former president.

Moreover, Ms Carroll was backed up by two additional witnesses who said that Mr Trump had assaulted them in similar fashion. A former stockbroker testified that he groped and kissed her in the first-class cabin of a commercial airliner in the 1970s before she fled back to the safety of coach. And a former journalist for People Magazine told the jury that Mr Trump had coaxed her into a private room at his Florida hotel, pushed her against a wall and began kissing her as she tried to get away.

Trump proved the strongest witness, by far, against himself

All of that strongly contradicted claims by Mr Trump's lead attorney, Joe Tacopina, that "everything in this case" is either “Amazing. Odd. Inconceivable. Unbelievable.” It took the jury less than three hours to conclude precisely the opposite.

But Mr Trump proved the strongest witness, by far, against himself. Though he avoided the trial and declined to testify, his own words provided overwhelming circumstantial and characterological indictments against him. His attorneys will never allow the former president to ever again take the witness stand if they can possibly prevent it. He may or may not be the worst US president ever (a lively debate about this continues), but he's certainly a nightmarish legal client and witness.

The jury got to hear Mr Trump's bizarre primary argument dismissing these accusations, and the over two dozen others like it, which is that Ms Carroll is, he insists, "not my type". It was bad enough when these claims seemed to suggest that a sexual assault and rape might be more understandable if she somehow were “his type". But, disastrously, in a roughly contemporaneous photograph he misidentified Ms Carroll as his then-wife, Marla Maples. "That's my wife," he said casually, as his attorneys rushed to contradict him. No juror will have missed the irreconcilable chasm between "she's not my type" and "that's my wife".

The court was also treated to Mr Trump's account of his own predatory sexual habits as he explained in the infamous Access Hollywood videotape. In an outtake from the series, he notoriously told the interviewer that he made a habit of kissing attractive women without waiting or seeking their consent and grabbing them exceptionally inappropriately. "When you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything," he insisted.

When the video was leaked before the 2016 presidential election, Mr Trump dismissed the conversation as "locker room banter". But the stunning verdict suggests it may have been unnervingly accurate.

Worse yet, in a deposition also played for the jury, Ms Carroll’s attorneys asked Mr Trump about those remarks. He confirmed he considered himself “a star,” and said “If you look over the last million years, I guess that’s been largely true. Not always, but largely true. Unfortunately or fortunately.” Not only is this highly debatable, that this supposed historical pattern could be construed as "fortunate" appears catastrophically revealing of deep-seated predatory and misogynistic attitudes.

After all that, an effective defence required something more substantial than dismissing Ms Carroll’s allegations as simply inconceivable or unbelievable. The standard in a US civil trial is demonstrating a claim by the preponderance of the evidence, not without a shadow of a doubt. Her lawyers obviously cleared the first hurdle, except on the rape accusation, and most likely even met the second.

Putting aside other potential or looming criminal trials in Manhattan, Georgia and at the federal level, will this judgment harm Mr Trump's chances for 2024? Thus far, his legal woes appear to have done nothing but strengthen his grip on the Republican voter base, and while he still could be defeated for the nomination, he seems in a very strong position right now.

But in a general election, and despite President Joe Biden's dismal polling results, this verdict will almost certainly weaken his already bleak prospects. After decades of living in a grey zone of legal ambiguity created by his largely inherited vast wealth, and the protections unduly afforded to white-collar defendants by the US system, reality is finally catching up with the poster boy of privileged impunity.

Voters, particularly women, who pulled the lever for Mr Trump in 2016 while dismissing the Access Hollywood video as irrelevant macho bluster, will surely have a much harder time repeating the gesture next year.

Published: May 10, 2023, 2:00 PM
Updated: May 17, 2023, 10:38 AM