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After Years of Waiting, E. Jean Carroll Testifies on Trump and Trauma

Defamation and the dressing room.
April 27, 2023
After Years of Waiting, E. Jean Carroll Testifies on Trump and Trauma
Writer E. Jean Carroll leaves the Manhattan Federal Court in New York on April 25, 2023, as jury selection is set to begin in the defamation case against former US President Donald Trump brought by Carroll, who accused him of raping her in the 1990s. - No criminal prosecution can stem from the Carroll case but if Trump loses it will be the first time he has ever been held legally liable for an allegation of sexual assault. Trump has provided sworn testimony in the case and is not expected to take the witness stand during the trial as Carroll's lawyers have said they do not intend to call him. (Photo by Kena Betancur / AFP / Getty Images)

Opening statements in E. Jean Carroll v. Donald J. Trump took place in a federal court in Manhattan on Wednesday before a jury of Trump’s peers, six men and three women. It’s the first in what could be two trials in the Big Apple against the former president of the United States. This one is a civil action for defamation and the tort of battery (not to be confused with criminal battery, a charge that can be brought only by the government). Manhattan D.A. Alvin Bragg has separately charged Trump criminally with 34 counts of falsifying business records in connection with hush money payments made, prior to the 2016 election, to two women with whom Trump allegedly had extramarital affairs.

Given Trump’s frontrunner status for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, the unifying theme between these cases is unmistakable: Donald Trump’s vile misogyny and contempt for women. The voting public blinked away this fact back in 2016 when the Access Hollywood tape of him bragging about his penchant for sexual assault leaked. Yet now, it’s the women—including Stormy Daniels, whose story is a linchpin of the Bragg indictment—who are finally having their day in court.

Carroll’s battery claim arises from an alleged rape in a dressing room at the Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York City in 1996, when she was an advice columnist for Elle magazine. “Hey, you are that advice lady,” Carroll recounted Trump saying when she bumped into him while exiting the store. “Hey, you’re that real estate tycoon,” she replied, then agreeing to his request that she give her advice on purchasing a gift. He suggested lingerie, asking her to try a piece on. She joked back and they went together to a dressing room. “Donald Trump was being very light, it was very joshing and pleasant, and very funny,” she said in court yesterday. “Yes, I was flirting the whole time. The comedy was escalating.”

Carroll testified that upon entering the dressing room, Trump “immediately shut the door and shoved me against the wall,” pinning her arms back and banging her head. After pulling down her tights, “His hand, his finger went into my vagina, which was extremely painful. It was a horrible feeling,” Carroll testified. “He put his hand inside me and curved his finger. As I sit here today, I can still feel it. Then he inserted his penis.” She testified that she has not had sex or been in a romantic relationship since, due to the trauma from the incident. Although Carroll contemporaneously told two friends about what happened, she didn’t go public with her experience until 2019, in the wake of the #MeToo surge.

Trump’s lawyer will cross-examine Carroll on Thursday. An opening argument outlined his plans for discrediting her. “E. Jean Carroll can’t tell you the date she claims to have been raped,” he argued. “She can’t tell you the month she claims to have been raped. She can’t tell you the season. She can’t even tell you the year,” he said, and then questioned her veracity further. “E. Jean Carroll once called the police on teenagers who vandalized her mailbox but not when she was violently raped,” he said.

Under New York law, civil battery requires proof of unauthorized bodily contact which is offensive in nature and made with intent. Although the victim’s consent is a defense, Trump himself foreclosed the opportunity to raise it in this case. On June 21, 2019, he issued a public statement:

Regarding the “story” by E. Jean Carroll, claiming she once encountered me at Bergdorf Goodman 23 years ago. I’ve never met this person in my life. She is trying to sell a new book—that should indicate her motivation. It should be sold in the fiction section.

Shame on those who make up false stories of assault to try to get publicity for themselves, or sell a book, or carry out a political agenda—like Julie Swetnick who falsely accused Justice Brett Kavanaugh. It’s just as bad for people to believe it, particularly when there is zero evidence. Worse still for a dying publication to try to prop itself up by peddling fake news—it’s an epidemic. . .

False accusations diminish the severity of real assault. All should condemn false accusations and any actual assault in the strongest possible terms.

If anyone has information that the Democratic Party is working with Ms. Carroll or New York Magazine, please notify us as soon as possible. The world should know what’s really going on. It is a disgrace and people should pay dearly for such false accusations.

In a later statement he added, among other things, that “she’s not my type.” Carroll’s counsel plans to call other women to the stand with similar stories of sexual assault by the former president.

Trump’s denials give rise to the second count of defamation. Under New York law, defamation requires a showing (1) that the defendant made a false and defamatory statement that he knew or should have known was false; (2) that the false statement clearly identified the target; (3) that the defendant published the defamatory statement to some third party who is not the target; and (4) that the false statement damaged the plaintiff. (For certain types of false statements, damages are presumed under what is known as defamation per se; Carroll’s lawyers argue that it applies here.)

Trump has already triggered the ire of the judge by calling the lawsuit a “scam” on his Trump Social platform on Wednesday. Either Trump will learn quickly that he’s not the boss of this courtroom, or he will face consequences the likes of which he’s never seen. The rule of law, the evidence, and a federal judge with life tenure are in charge now. It’s no wonder that Carroll, after hours of testimony, broke down in tears describing “being able to get my day in court . . . I’m crying, but I got to tell my story in court.”

Kimberly Wehle

Kimberly Wehle is a contributor to The Bulwark. She served as an assistant U.S. attorney and an associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. She is currently a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. An ABC News legal contributor, she is the author of three books with HarperCollins: How to Read the Constitution—and Why, What You Need to Know About Voting—and Why, and, most recently, How to Think Like a Lawyer and Why—A Common-Sense Guide to Everyday Dilemmas. Her new book, Pardon Power: How the Pardon System Works—and Why, is forthcoming in September 2024 from Woodhall Press. @kimwehle.