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Trump Found Liable for Sexual Abuse and Defamation in Carroll Case

E. Jean Carroll after winning Trump trial.
By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

This article contains explicit language and touches on subjects that may be triggering for some.

As he gears up to run for president again in 2024, the courts can't seem to get enough of Donald Trump. While our recent coverage has focused largely on cases pertaining to the former president's alleged political transgressions—from hiding important documents to inciting the Capitol riots to using campaign funds as hush money—let's not forget that Trump has had no shortage of lawsuits stemming from his personal life, as well. Even before he took office, he has been called out for a number of sexual misdeeds, from sexually assaulting Summer Zervos to making Stormy Daniels sign an NDA about their relationship. Not only did Trump deny those allegations, but he publicly painted the women as liars—resulting in him being sued for defamation. In any case, the past pattern has usually been Trump steering clear of liability for the alleged sexual offenses.

Enter the latest in a long line of women bringing legal action against the former president: journalist E. Jean Carroll. But this time, the trial was a victory for the victim. A federal jury decided Tuesday that Trump must pay $5 million in damages to the writer for sexually abusing her in the mid-1990s (and for defaming her as a liar when she went public about the incident, as per his habit).

Carroll had alleged that the former president raped her. While the jury decided that he was not guilty of rape, he did commit the lesser offense of sexual abuse. Let's get into the details of the trial.

To learn more about the offenses of rape and defamation, visit FindLaw's Learn About the Law pages on Rape Crimes Defined, Common Defenses and Rape Penalties and Defamation, Libel, and Slander.

Carroll Brings Back the 90s

Elizabeth Jean Carroll has been known for her eponymous "Ask E. Jean" column in the popular women's magazine, Elle, since 1993.

The following is a summary of the alleged facts from the prosecution in the case: Around 1995 or 1996, Carroll accompanied Trump to a New York department store to purchase a gift for another woman. While the two were in the store, Trump insisted that Carroll try on a piece of clothing. He accompanied her into the dressing room, where he slammed her head against the wall, removed her underwear, and penetrated her.

Fast forward to 2019, when Carroll published What Do We Need Men For?: A Modest Proposal. In the book, she accuses Donald Trump (along with former CBS executive Les Moonves) of sexually assaulting her in the mid-90s. When Trump denied the allegation, she promptly took him to civil court to sue him for defamation. Then, three years later in November of 2022, Carroll sued Trump for battery (which, under New York law, encompasses rape, sexual abuse, and "forcible touching"). She also renewed her prior claim of defamation.

New Law Finally Lets Us "Ask E. Jean"

Why did Carroll bring her lawsuit so late? For a while, she was time-barred. The statute of limitations for bringing a rape case in New York was just five years. If you're wondering why Carroll didn't immediately bring a civil suit or go to the police while the statute of limitations was still ticking, keep in mind the culture of victim-silencing that the #MeToo movement was reacting against.

Trump (and other celebrities) are known to go to extreme measures to keep people quiet, like making them sign non-disclosure agreements or giving them hush money. But even without the alleged perpetrator taking active measures, it is difficult enough for victims of sexual abuse to come forward or navigate the justice system in a culture that makes such topics taboo and undermines the credibility of survivors.

Crucially, though, the law in New York and many other states makes it such that you have a very limited window after a given incident to either go to the police or bring civil suit. After Y2K, Carroll wouldn't have been able to bring charges against Trump, even if she felt ready.

States across the country are recently recognizing the problem of tight statutes of limitations, and enacting new laws in response. In May of 2022, New York State enacted the Adult Survivors Act (ASA), amending state laws that had once barred victims of sexual offenses from seeking justice due to a lapse of relevant statutes of limitations. It permits victims to file civil suits during a one-year period, from November 24, 2022, to November 24, 2023. New York Senator Anna M. Kaplan, a proponent of the law, said in a statement: "[F]or too long, New York's outdated laws made it difficult for survivors of abuse to seek justice, causing too many to suffer in silence to avoid being re-victimized by an unforgiving legal process."

Historically, New York has had rather tight time restrictions on bringing civil suits, and this is not the first time the state has passed laws modifying the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases. Around the same time, it passed the Child Victims Act, which substantially extended the age at which child survivors of sexual abuse could file both civil and criminal charges. That law was in play during the infamous case between Virginia Giuffre and Prince Andrew.

When Carroll's attorney, Roberta Kaplan (no relation to the senator), privately announced in August of 2022 their intentions to sue him under the ASA, Trump publicly responded on his social media outlet, Truth Social. The former president referred to Carroll as a "complete con job," while characterizing the legal system in New York as "a broken disgrace" for enacting the ASA. He wrote, "[y]ou have to fight for years, and spend a fortune, in order to get your reputation back from liars, cheaters, and hacks."

A few months later, in January of this year, Carroll filed the new rape lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. On top of the rape allegation, she also accused Trump of defamation in his Truth Social statement.

Trump's Trial

The trial was presided over by District Judge Lewis Kaplan (no relation to Senator Kaplan, who was behind the ASA, nor to Carroll's attorney, Roberta Kaplan. Yes, there are a lot of Kaplans involved in this case).

In defending his client, Trump's attorney, Alina Habba, claimed that the ASA violates the Due Process Clause of the New York State Constitution. Habba also argued that Carroll's libel claim was "legally insufficient because [her] complaint fails to allege what New York law refers to as 'special damages.'"

Addressing the first of Trump's defenses, Judge Kaplan wrote that the ASA is not a due process violation under the New York State Constitution, because a law that lifts statutes of limitations is constitutional as long as it serves as "a reasonable measure to address an injustice." Judge Kaplan acknowledged how heinous an injustice sexual misconduct is, while drawing attention to how the New York State legislature has been grappling with the "culture of silence" around such crimes for quite some time.

The judge also disagreed with the second of Trump's defenses, saying that "Mr. Trump's argument falls short because he fails to appreciate the distinction in New York law between libel per se and slander per se." Habba argued that Carroll failed to plead 'special damages,' which he claimed is required under New York law in cases where such allegations are made. Judge Kaplan pointed out that such damages need only be expressly sought in cases where the offense is slander per se. Carroll alleged libel per se, an offense that does not require that 'special damages' be sought.

A Dumpster Fire Deposition

Last week, New York courts finally released all portions of the deposition of the defendant president, taken at his Mar-a-Lago mansion in October of 2022. Like most things Trump says on public record, it does not want for entertainment value. But let's talk about the inculpatory statements that came out, and how his lawyer, Alina Habba, could have done a better job at preventing them.

Firstly, Alina, knowing how prone your client is to putting his foot in his mouth and going off the rails, you probably shouldn't have let him take the stand. But even if you let him testify, you could have prepped him better. Unfortunately for Trump, Habba didn't rein in the hubbub.

A Lesson in Trumpese

Whether you love him or hate him, there's no denying that the former president's personal lexicon is a little odd. At best, being inarticulate will lend itself to the amusement of the public and speculation of linguists. But at worst, it can open the door for some tough follow-up questions in a deposition. Most of us know how to spell "coffee." Most of us probably also know what "swoon" means, or at least that it doesn't mean "to have sex with." Trump posted on social media that he had never "swooned" Carroll. Not to be pedantic, sir, but that is not a transitive verb. You can't "swoon somebody."

Habba should have expected that Carroll's attorneys would follow up about that, and he could have easily prepped his client for the questioning. But it doesn't look like Trump's attorney sat him down for a grammar lesson, because when Roberta Kaplan later asked him about it over the deposition, he responded by explaining that:

[t]hat would be a word, maybe accurate or not, having to do with talking to her and talking her—to do an act that she said happened, which didn't happen. And it's a nicer word than the word that starts with an 'F,' and this would be word that I used because I thought it would be inappropriate to use the other word. And it didn't happen.

When attorney Kaplan explained to him the dictionary definition of "swoon," instead of admitting ignorance, Trump doubled down. And in doing so, he put his other foot in his mouth. Kaplan asked: "That's not what you meant here?" The former president responded: "Well, sort of, that's what she said I did to her. She fainted with great emotion. She actually indicated that she loved it . . . She loved it until commercial break. In fact, I think she said it was sexy . . . She said it was very sexy to be raped." Carroll had said no such thing. In an earlier appearance on CNN, she actually explicitly described the incident as "not sexual," and that "it hurt."

Trump's attorney should have seen this coming from Carroll's attorney. What Trump should have seen, literally, is Carroll herself. In a photo.

A Victim of Vanity

The septuagenarian needs reading glasses. He himself has admitted he should wear them all the time, but is "too vain" to do so. Instead, he's been known to just borrow a pair from a judge when asked to look at a document in court. However, he did not do so here.

One of Trump's attempted defenses to the rape allegations was that Carroll was not his "type" of woman. Throughout the years since the journalist's 2019 allegations came out, he has regurgitated this line, implying that he did not find her attractive. The day before the deposition, he repeated on Truth Social, "[t]his woman is not my type."

Then, during the deposition, Carroll's attorneys handed Trump a black-and-white photo taken around the time of the alleged rape and asked him to identify the woman in the photo. Trump identified her as Marla Maples, to whom he was married at the time. Trump later confirms that the three women he had married throughout his lifetime were all his "type."

The woman in the photo? Not Maples. Not any of Trump's wives. It was Carroll herself. So much for the "not my type" defense. His attorney must have been facepalming pretty hard.

Still, Trump's legal team in this case were a lot more competent than previous attorneys. But the former president seems to have a knack for picking attorneys that drop the ball. Considering that when faced with previous rape allegations, Trump hired legal counsel that didn't know the definition of the crime, he should count his blessings that he managed to get off the rape charges.

Allegations to His Advantage?

Again, this is not the first time that Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct. In fact, at the trial, former People magazine reporter Natasha Stoynoff testified that Trump forcibly kissed her at his club in Mar-a-Lago in 2005. Another of his victims, Jessica Leeds, also provided testimony, describing a situation where Trump kissed and groped her, putting his hand up her skirt, during a flight in the late-1970s.

But, of course, he has never really tried to conceal any of this. No one can forget the infamous 2005 Access Hollywood video, where he is caught saying that women regularly allow him to "grab 'em by the pussy." This video was shown at trial.

And while some might think that such serious allegations would ruin a person's political career, the lawsuit appears not to have too negatively affected Trump's run for re-election. In fact, polls still show him as the Republican front-runner.

Trump has always been an "all press is good press" kind of guy. While you'd think someone would not actively publicize claims of rape, the former president has actually cited the lawsuit in campaign fundraising emails as evidence of a Democratic plot. But then again, this kind of behavior seems not to have hurt his numbers in the past. For example, his poll numbers also improved after he was charged last month with falsifying business records over hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels.

Trump is the first president to be criminally charged, and even as he campaigns for re-election in 2024, the number of allegations against him continue to grow. But as someone who loves throwing around conspiracy theories, he's likely to continue using even his legal convictions to his political advantage. He seems to be able to appeal to his voter base by casting himself as the victim of a system that is trying to discredit him as a criminal. It remains to be seen whether publicity around the Carroll case will only draw more support and possibly make him even more popular.

To learn more about laws and legal issues related to those in play in the case of Carroll v. Trump, you can visit FindLaw's Learn About The Law pages:

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