Donald Trump won’t be there to see it, but the former US president’s deeply tarnished reputation may be about to take another serious hit as a New York jury decides whether he is a rapist.
E Jean Carroll, a former advice columnist and author, will finally get her day in court this week, nearly three decades after she alleges that Trump pinned her against the wall of a New York department store and sexually assaulted her.
Carroll is suing Trump for damages under a recent New York state law opening a one-year window for adult victims of sexual assault to file civil cases after the statute of limitations has expired. Jury selection is scheduled to begin in a Manhattan court on Tuesday.
The trial comes as Trump already faces criminal fraud charges over the payment of hush money to the porn star Stormy Daniels, and the prospect of looming federal and state prosecutions over attempts to fix the 2020 election, the January 6 storming of the Capitol and the hoarding of classified documents.
But Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, said the case stands out even amid Trump’s myriad legal problems because it revives memories of some of his most egregious behavior as he once again runs for president.
“One of the things that happened because of Trump’s election in 2016 was this collective outrage from women across the country for a whole host of reasons, but in many ways encapsulated by that video of him talking about grabbing women by their genitalia. There was this moment for many women who thought it would not be possible for someone caught saying that to ever become president of the United States. And then he was,” she said.
“This case brings all that up and in some ways adds to that outrage that women feel about him. He has been accused of this kind of behaviour so many times and he’s never been held accountable. This time it seems like he may in fact be held accountable.”
Carroll accuses Trump of raping her in a dressing room of the New York department store, Bergdorf Goodman, some time in late 1995 or early the following year. She claims that the New York businessman recognised her as she shopped and asked for help in choosing a present for a woman who is not named in the litigation.
Carroll told National Public Radio she thought it was “just charming” that Trump wanted advice on buying a present. But then he led the way to the lingerie department.
“He had grabbed up from the counter a little see-through bodysuit and told me to go try it on,” said Carroll. “And that’s where I got into trouble, because we went into the dressing room and he closed the door and that was it.”
Carroll alleges that Trump pushed her against a wall and forcibly kissed her until she pushed him away.
“Then he pressed her against the wall once more, pulled down her tights, and forcibly raped her for several minutes until she managed to push him off and fled the store,” according to the lawsuit.
Carroll said that she immediately told one friend about the assault and a second in the following days. Lisa Birnbach and Carol Martin have since corroborated the account.
But Carroll did not file a complaint with the police because she “was in shock and did not wish to think of herself as a rape victim”.
“The two friends in whom she confided gave her conflicting advice about reporting the event. Ultimately, she was persuaded by the advice of the friend who advised her to keep quiet. That friend stressed that Mr Trump was powerful and would ‘bury’ Ms Carroll if she came forward,” the complaint alleges.
Carroll changed her mind when Trump was elected president and following the accusations against the film producer Harvey Weinstein that led to the #MeToo movement. She wrote a book, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal, detailing abuse of one kind or other by a number of men, including Trump. Excerpts were published in New York magazine.
Trump responded with his usual vigor, claiming never to have met Carroll even though there is a photograph of the pair with their respective spouses a few years before the alleged assault. He called her allegations “a complete con job” and said Carroll’s book “should be sold in the fiction section”.
“She completely made up a story that I met her at the doors of this crowded New York City Department Store and, within minutes, ‘swooned’ her. It is a Hoax and a lie,” Trump wrote on his social media site, Truth Social.
“And, while I am not supposed to say it, I will. This woman is not my type!”
Trump said that Carroll’s inability to pin down an exact date for the assault was evidence that it never happened.
“Now all I have to do is go through years more of legal nonsense in order to clear my name of her and her lawyer’s phoney attacks on me. This can only happen to ‘Trump’!”
Trump’s defence team appears likely to accuse Carroll of a politically motivated attack on the former president. The judge is permitting the defence to submit evidence that her lawsuit is funded in part by the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman, who is a harsh critic of Trump.
The former president told the trial judge, Lewis Kaplan, that he would not be attending the hearing as he did not want to disrupt New York’s traffic with his motorcade. Kaplan scoffed at that explanation.
But Carroll will give testimony along with the two friends who corroborate her account that she sought their advice immediately after the alleged assault.
Walsh said this could be a dangerous moment for Trump because Carroll is likely to make a highly credible witness.
“It’s not that you hear this story from her, and you go, ‘Oh, that couldn’t be. That’s not him.’ It fits a pattern with him,” she said.
Nonetheless, Walsh is not sure if the Carroll trial will prove the moment of reckoning she says Trump deserves to face.
“It’s sometimes quite astonishing to watch how much he can get away with. Is this all a moment of reckoning? With these other cases that are pending, could this be the moment where he finally can’t talk himself out of this stuff? I don’t know,” she said.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said that if the jury finds that Trump did rape Carroll, there will be a political consequence but it will not be immediate.
“It will not affect his base that is powering him potentially to another nomination. They don’t care. Not only will this not hurt him, it’s going to reinforce the image that his core supporters have that he is being persecuted. So, for the nomination, it could even be a plus, I’m sorry to say,” he said.
“But it’ll hurt him in a general election. Carroll is very believable and it should have some effect on Americans who are not in the Maga base.”
Walsh agrees, saying that, combined with Trump’s other legal problems, it will remind white female Republican voters, who supported him in 2016 despite the comments about grabbing genitalia, why they then turned away from him four years later and played an important part in his defeat.
“It’s one thing when you are boasting to your buddy and showing off. It’s another thing when you have a woman stepping forward saying ‘you raped me’,” she said.
“College-educated white women who are Republicans have pulled away from the party. In the past, the party sort of trumped everything. In a way, that’s what happened in 2016. But after watching Trump be the president, it became harder and harder for those women to continue to pull the lever for Donald Trump. These women who used to be pretty solid Republican women voters couldn’t go there. I think these women would have a very hard time if he is the nominee again.”
Carroll has two separate cases against Trump. The first accuses him of defaming her in 2019 when he denied her accusations.
But that case is on hold pending the second lawsuit made possible after New York passed the adult survivors act last year opening the window for people who were sexually assaulted as adults to bring legal actions against their attackers in the wake of the #MeToo movement.