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The E. Jean Carroll Verdict: For Once, Trump Couldn’t Escape Justice

Like many of his other crimes and misdeeds, Trump bragged about committing sexual assault, and barely defended himself against the charges.
May 9, 2023
The E. Jean Carroll Verdict: For Once, Trump Couldn’t Escape Justice
(Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

After three hours of deliberations, a unanimous federal jury in Manhattan returned a verdict Tuesday in E. Jean Carroll’s civil case against Donald J. Trump, finding him guilty of sexual abuse and defamation. Altogether, he’s on the hook for nearly $5 million, pending an inevitable appeal. This is a big win for Carroll, for the rule of law, and for countless victims of sexual assault across the country. Republicans, who have come to accept or even embrace Trump’s cruelty and vulgarity since he was heard bragging about assaulting women on the Access Hollywood tape in October 2016, will likely take no notice. But that’s not a reason to shrug off the jury’s decision.

Trump refused to appear for the trial or mount any meaningful defense to the allegations that he raped Carroll in a Bergdorf Goodman department store dressing room in New York in 1996. Predictably, his defense counsel took its shot at blaming the victim—for not screaming during the attack and for not calling the police afterwards. As Carroll explained, and as two witnesses whom she contemporaneously told of the attack testified, she was afraid of retaliation—the kind of retaliation she experienced when she went public with her story in 2019 and Trump, according to the jury, defamed her.

Trump’s lawyers can hardly be denounced for mounting such a defense. One in five women in the United States experiences rape during their lifetime—and one in three of those victims experiences it for the first time between the ages of 11 and 17. Nobody seriously believes anymore that the failure to report a sexual assault somehow means it didn’t happen. The legislature of New York certainly doesn’t, which is why in 2022 it enacted a look-back law enabling abuse victims to pursue assault charges that would otherwise be stale under the statute of limitations. Carroll filed her lawsuit on the first day of the one-year window for bringing such charges.

Still, the former president’s defense team attempted to tap into something much more sinister—a “who cares” attitude that Trump himself unabashedly displayed during his deposition, which was played to the jury in lieu of his actual appearance. When asked about his comment on the Access Hollywood tape that “when you’re a star, they let you do it” (that is, sexually assault women), Trump responded: “Well, that’s what—if you look over the last million years, I guess that’s largely been true. Not always, but largely true. Unfortunately or fortunately.”

Trump couldn’t help but toss in that zinger, the “fortunately” part, which put in bold relief the plain truth that he feels nostalgic about the “great” days in which celebrities could sexually assault women at will and with impunity, damaging their victims incalculably.

Trump supporters will undoubtedly seize on one detail: The jury on its verdict form did not check the box finding that Carroll proved by a preponderance of the evidence that he actually raped her, agreeing instead that she proved sexual abuse. This is a legal distinction without a difference. Her complaint alleged the civil claim of battery in broad terms, specifying that “Trump intentionally, and without her consent, attacked Carroll to satisfy his own sexual desires. Trump’s physical contact with Carroll was offensive and wrongful under all the circumstances.” Whether the actions she claimed would have qualified as rape under New York criminal law is irrelevant to her claim.

Any attempt to vindicate Trump because the jury didn’t say he actually raped Carroll (an absurdity on its face) is also belied by the jury’s award of punitive damages as well as compensatory damages. Punitive damages, as their name suggests, are designed to punish. The jury awarded $2 million in compensatory damages for battery and $20,000 in punitive damages. On the defamation claim, which Carroll established based on Trump’s public statement that she’s not “my type” while publicly denying he even met her, it awarded an additional $1.7 million in compensatory damages for reputational harm, another $1 million in compensatory damages for other harms caused by the defamation, and a topping of $280,000 in punitive damages—assigning a higher value to his words than his abuse.

Carroll wasn’t legally required to pick a number at the onset of the case, and didn’t. The jury could have found for Trump on either or both counts, or found for her on the facts and the law but (taking into account her apparent life of wealth) awarded her only a nominal sum of money.

The jury’s decision is a moment for a collective exhale. Carroll got her day in court and vindication for the trauma she suffered at Trump’s hands. It also shows that the legal system—where the facts, the law, and the reason of regular people govern—is still functioning in America.

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.