Donald Trump has boasted about grabbing women by the pussy without their consent. He has made innumerable misogynistic comments. He has been accused of sexual misconduct by at least 26 women. He has suggested that some of the women who have accused him of misconduct were too unattractive to assault. And, until this week, he has managed to get away with all of it. Trump has faced no meaningful consequences for his actions; he has given every impression of being above the law.
Until this week. It may have taken decades, but the law has finally caught up with Trump. On Tuesday, a jury in New York found that the former president sexually abused the advice columnist E Jean Carroll in the changing room of a department store 27 years ago. It was a civil case, so Trump hasn’t been taken away in handcuffs, but his reputation and his wallet have suffered a blow. While the jury did not find that Trump raped Carroll, its verdict brands him a sexual predator. Carroll was awarded $5m (£4m) in total: $2.02m in compensation and damages for her battery claim and $2.98m in compensation and damages for defamation, as a result of Trump calling her a liar.
“I filed this lawsuit against Donald Trump to clear my name and to get my life back,” Carroll said on Tuesday. “Today, the world finally knows the truth. This victory is not just for me but for every woman who has suffered because she was not believed.”
It is hard to overstate just how profound it is to see one of the world’s most prominent men finally held accountable for his actions – and at a time when women’s rights in the US seem to be going backwards. “The verdict in this case is important to survivors of sexual abuse,” says the trailblazing equal rights lawyer Gloria Allred. “It will cause many of them to believe that if they are sexually abused and defamed by a rich, powerful and famous man that they may be able to fight back and win in a civil lawsuit, even if it is too late for a criminal case to be filed or even if no police report is ever made.”
The activist Shannon Coulter says that the verdict feels deeply personal. “Ever since the release of the Access Hollywood tape [in which Trump made his “Grab ’em by the pussy” remark], I’ve been on this journey of understanding my own rage around the words Donald Trump said on it,” Coulter says. “This journey included confronting the sexual assault I experienced as a younger woman at the hands of a powerful man. With E Jean Carroll’s victory today, something has come full circle for me. I feel more peaceful. Less angry. I feel that some small amount of justice has, at last, been served, not just to Donald Trump, but to any man who believes that power eclipses consent.”
Carroll’s victory came at a high price. First, there was the assault itself: the panicked minutes spent trapped alone with Trump, struggling as she tried to push him off. When she spoke publicly about the assault for the first time, in an article in New York magazine in 2019, Carroll wrote: “I have never had sex with anybody ever again.” Then there was the aftermath: being forced to relive the assault again and again, having every detail poked, prodded and scrutinised.
Why did she take so long to come forward? Because, Carroll wrote in her essay, she knew exactly what the response would be; every woman does. “Receiving death threats, being driven from my home, being dismissed, being dragged through the mud, and joining the 15 women who’ve come forward with credible stories about how the man grabbed, badgered, belittled, mauled, molested, and assaulted them, only to see the man turn it around, deny, threaten, and attack them, never sounded like much fun,” she wrote.
Of course, everything that Carroll expected to happen when she came forward happened immediately. Trump’s defence was steeped in sexism and victim-blaming; it was a masterclass in misogyny. In video testimony in October, Trump claimed that Carroll was a “nut job” who had “said it was very sexy to be raped”. In fact, what she had said was that some other people “think rape is sexy”. Meanwhile, Trump’s lawyer Joseph Tacopina called Carroll’s case “a scam” and accused the writer of “minimising real rape” and trying to profit from her accusations.
What constitutes “real rape”, according to Tacopina? Well, it’s not rape if there is no screaming, he appeared to insinuate. At one particularly gruesome point in the trial, Tacopina repeatedly asked Carroll why she didn’t scream during the assault. “I was in too much of a panic to scream,” Carroll replied. Tacopina kept pushing the issue. Why hadn’t she screamed? Why hadn’t she behaved in the manner that he, Trump’s lawyer and an apparent expert on assault, expected a rape victim to behave? “I’m telling you he raped me whether I screamed or not,” an exasperated Carroll replied. “One of the reasons women don’t come forward is because they’re always asked: ‘Why didn’t you scream?’ Some women scream. Some women don’t. It keeps women silent.”
“Rape myths – myths that allegations of sexual assault are uniquely untrustworthy, that women have to perform victimhood in a certain way to be credible, or that women should not be believed if they are imperfect human beings – are still powerful in our culture,” says Emily Martin, a spokesperson for the National Women’s Law Center Action Fund. “They often show up in courtrooms. We saw some of them in this trial. E Jean Carroll’s courage reaffirmed the power of survivors’ voices to create change. But no one should have to be this courageous or face the misogynistic vitriol she has faced in order to get some measure of justice. Our legal systems – and our media narratives – often fail survivors.”
This trial is over, but the misogynistic vitriol directed at Carroll isn’t. Trump doesn’t take losing well and responded to the verdict in his usual restrained and eloquent manner, smearing Carroll as a liar. “I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHO THIS WOMAN IS. THIS VERDICT IS A DISGRACE – A CONTINUATION OF THE GREATEST WITCH HUNT OF ALL TIME!” he wrote on his social media platform.
Trump has repeated the assertion that he doesn’t know who Carroll is multiple times, despite the fact that a photograph taken in 1987 shows them together with their then spouses. He has also said that she isn’t his “type”, despite once mistaking a picture of her for his second wife, Marla Maples.
What does Trump plan to do now? Hours before the verdict was announced, Trump said he would appeal. He repeated this intention to Fox News Digital after the verdict. “We’ll appeal. We got treated very badly by the Clinton-appointed judge,” Trump complained. “And [Carroll] is a Clinton person, too.” He then added: “I have no idea who this woman is.”
If Trump does appeal, his argument will probably be that the case was an attempt to stop him from winning the presidency in 2024. A statement sent to reporters by the Trump campaign, for example, alleged that the trial was a “political endeavour targeting President Trump because he is now an overwhelming front-runner to be once again elected President of the United States”. That last bit isn’t bombast: Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination and a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this month showed Biden trailing Trump by six percentage points in a theoretical rematch. Some analysts have questioned the methodology of that poll, but the fact remains: Trump should be taken seriously as a 2024 contender.
Could the Carroll verdict hurt Trump’s political future? In a sane world, this wouldn’t even be up for debate. In a sane world, having a jury of nine people deliberate for just three hours before finding unanimously that you sexually assaulted a woman and defamed her should end your career. But, as has been demonstrated time and time again, the rules work differently when it comes to Trump. During the trial, Carroll’s attorney Michael Ferrara asked the writer why she didn’t go public with her allegations when Trump first ran for president. “I noticed that the more women who came forward to accuse him, the better he did in the polls,” she said.
“Trump has always made the ability to have anyone he wants and do anything he wants with impunity part of his brand,” says Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian who writes about authoritarianism, democracy protection and propaganda. “When the Access Hollywood tapes came out right before the 2016 election, most people thought that would be the end of him – but it was the opposite.”
This verdict won’t necessarily hurt Trump, Ben-Ghiat believes; he will just spin it so that it fits the tried-and-tested narrative that he is a victim of the liberal elite. “Trump is a superb propagandist and for years he’s pushed the narrative of himself as the victim of a witch-hunt and pushed the idea that the deep state is after him,” she says. It’s important to remember, Ben-Ghiat says, that “Trump is not a normal politician – he’s a cult leader. We’ve already seen how he managed to indoctrinate tens of millions of people into discarding the facts in front of them and believing that he didn’t lose the 2020 election.”
If you need any more evidence that Trump isn’t a normal politician, look at the extraordinary advice that the US district judge Lewis Kaplan gave jurors in the Trump-Carroll case. They have had their identities kept secret, due to Kaplan’s concerns that they might face “harassment … and retaliation” from Trump supporters. After the verdict, Kaplan told the jurors that they were now allowed to identify themselves if they wished, but strongly suggested that they didn’t. “My advice to you is not to identify yourselves. Not now and not for a long time,” Kaplan said.
To repeat: a judge warned a jury that they might face violence from Trump supporters. It’s the sort of warning you expect in the trial of a mob boss, not a former president. “These jury instructions show again that he’s not a normal politician – he’s a violent cult leader,” Ben-Ghiat says.
Of course, while Trump may have a cult-like following, he is not omnipotent. The manner in which he is able to spin the Carroll verdict to his followers depends on what media platforms he is given and how journalists challenge his narrative about the trial. The first big test of this will be Wednesday’s live town hall forum on CNN, the first major television event of the 2024 presidential campaign. In a social media post on Tuesday, Trump seemed ambivalent about his big return to primetime. “Could be the beginning of a New & Vibrant CNN, with no more Fake News,” Trump wrote. “Or it could turn into a disaster for all, including me. Let’s see what happens?”
• The standfirst of this article was amended on 11 May 2023. Donald Trump was found liable for sexual abuse, not sexual assault, as an earlier version said.