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E. Jean Carroll Won, But the Country May Still Lose

The more trouble Trump gets in, the more his fans admire him.
May 11, 2023
E. Jean Carroll Won, But the Country May Still Lose
(Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Patience, all of you in despair at the crawling pace of federal and state investigations into the Former and Possibly Future Guy. Justice delayed isn’t always justice denied, even when you’re up against Donald J. Trump.

This is the lesson of E. Jean Carroll’s legal triumph this week, both for her and for the other women who have accused Trump of sexual assault and misconduct (and there have been many, whether the count is 19, 26, or at least 43). It’s also a victory for all women who have been sexually assaulted by anyone, for all those who never spoke up or filed suit or who did and lost, and for anyone, male or female, who wondered if #MeToo accountability would ever come for this particular celebrity who never had to pay for his assertion that “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”

Carroll won her civil case against Trump. The jury found him liable for sexual abuse and defamation, and awarded her $5 million.

Still, there’s no avoiding the tragedy here. Before she was an advice columnist for a women’s magazine, Carroll was “the stuff of journalistic legend,” legal analyst Lisa Rubin wrote on Twitter last month. She was a twice-divorced former beauty queen who owned a gun, lived daringly, and wrote boldly.

For a taste of her exploits, try this single paragraph from the New York Times:

When she wanted to profile Hunter S. Thompson, she showed up at his house in Colorado and all but moved in. She later wrote that the two had become intimately involved, and had done acid together. For Esquire, she profiled Dan Rather and Lyle Lovett (she asked him his penis size), and she persuaded the humor writer Fran Lebowitz to go camping with her for an article in Outside. For Playboy, she trekked across Papua New Guinea for a story “in search of primitive man.” In 1995, when Ms. Carroll found a lump in her breast, she brought a film crew to her surgery—and aired it on her television show.

That was Before Trump.

Then came Trump, in the form of a three-minute sexual attack in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman. The encounter left Carroll feeling rattled and powerless. Her sex life and romantic life ended abruptly that day, she testified. “I think maybe in that dressing room my desire for desire was killed,” she said in a podcast that was, strangely enough, played as part of Trump’s defense. And since 2019, she’s kept her gun loaded.

It took more than 25 years and the #MeToo movement for Carroll to break her public silence on Trump. Why? From the start, she correctly feared that if she spoke out, he would deny the attack, and could ruin her. Later, also correctly, she feared that going public would only make him more popular with his admirers. “I can’t imagine how ecstatic the poor saps will be to hear their favorite Walking Phallus got it on with an old lady in the world’s most prestigious department store,” she wrote in a book excerpt published in New York magazine in 2019.

This is, we must remember, the man who tried to intimidate Hillary Clinton at an October 2016 debate by inviting four women who had accused her husband of sexual misconduct to sit in the Trump family VIP box close to the stage. Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, not only vetoed the plan but threatened to have security remove the women. The campaign chose not to force the issue, but there’s no doubt a stunt like that would have scored points for Trump among his followers.

Carroll showed incredible courage in publicly exposing her life and losses on the stand. But knowing Trump and his fanboys as we do, here’s what strikes me as particular bravery, given Trump’s obnoxious, sexist, and oblivious habit of going after women for their looks: Carroll put her 79-year-old self on the stand, after Trump had ridiculously attacked her as ugly and not his type. Jessica Leeds testified at 81 that Trump sexually assaulted her on a plane in the late 1970s. He was “grabbing my breasts,” she said, and trying to kiss her and put his hand up her skirt. Natasha Stoynoff told the jury that in late 2005, when she was covering Trump for People magazine, that he led her to an empty room at Mar-a-Lago, with a pregnant Melania nearby. “Within seconds he was pushing me against the wall and forcing his tongue down my throat,” and telling her repeatedly that they were going to have an affair, she wrote in People in 2016.

Trump responded to the Carroll verdict with one of his tried and true copouts: “I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHO THIS WOMAN IS. THIS VERDICT IS A DISGRACE—A CONTINUATION OF THE GREATEST WITCH HUNT OF ALL TIME!”

Given the number of investigations, indictments, trials, and witnesses that could be coming, a whole lot of other people—from acquaintances to close friends, relatives, and employees—may soon discover that Trump has absolutely no idea who they are.

It’s a flimsy defense but one Trump repeated at the regrettable CNN town hall Wednesday night. “This woman, I don’t know her, I never met her, I have no idea who she is. . . . I never met this woman, I never saw this woman,” he said. But he also said that he and Carroll were “immediately” attracted to each other and had great chemistry, that she found an open dressing room, that he had met her and her then-husband years ago, she called her black husband a terrible racial slur, and he felt sorry for the guy. And the audience laughed heartily.

She could sue him again, if she wanted to.

Late in 2019, after Carroll had come forward about her experience, Stoynoff pointed out that women were the first Trump whistleblowers—more than a dozen of them, in 2016, on the eve of the presidential election. “We got hate mail, death threats,” she wrote in the Washington Post. “And what did he get? The keys to the office once held by Washington, Lincoln and the Roosevelts.”

How can it be that, even now, after the election lies, the January 6th insurrection, two impeachments, two ongoing federal investigations, and every sign that Trump is never going to change, he could conceivably get handed those keys again? How can it be that Republican support for Trump as the party’s nominee is rising? That Trump is holding his own against Joe Biden?

Bill Clinton talked about character as a journey. Donald Trump has always seen character as irrelevant. He has stiffed contractors, mistreated women, exploited supporters for money, and carelessly put at risk the nation he was sworn to protect. He has been undermining democracy since 2016, calling it a rigged and untrustworthy sham, as William Saletan documents in his case study of Lindsey Graham’s journey from Trump critic to toady. Trump’s voters love him not despite his amorality, but because of it.

After so many shocks and scandals, so much numbness, it is hard to imagine the Carroll verdict will be the buzzer that blasts the GOP out of its Trump hypnosis. Nor is that likely to happen as a result of Judge Lewis Kaplan’s sobering message to jury members before he dismissed them. “My advice to you is not to identify yourselves. Not now and not for a long time,” he said. “If you’re one who elects to speak to others and to identify yourselves to others, I direct you not to identify anyone else who sat on this jury. Each of you owes that to the other whatever you decided for yourself.”

“This is some post-verdict jury instruction: you could get killed or injured, certainly harassed, definitely trolled so don’t identify yourself and don’t identify anybody else,” Juliette Kayyem, a homeland security expert, said on Twitter, adding a damning postscript: “Trump’s strongest legacy will always be violence as an extension of our democratic processes.”

And yet, the way things are going, the political violence we’ve seen to date may not be Trump’s final or most dangerous legacy. Carroll had it exactly right in 2019: The worse Trump’s behavior, the more trouble he gets in, and the less he’s tethered to reason and truth, the more intense and loyal his admirers become, and the deeper the crisis for his party. No one has been willing or able to stop him yet, and the crystal ball shows only shadows ahead.

Correction (May 12, 2023, 12:30 p.m. EDT): This article originally gave the date of October 2020 for a debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton; it has been corrected to October 2016.

Jill Lawrence

Jill Lawrence is an opinion writer and the author of The Art of the Political Deal: How Congress Beat the Odds and Broke Through Gridlock. She previously covered national politics for the AP and USA Today and was the managing editor for politics at National Journal. Homepage: Twitter: @JillDLawrence.