On Tuesday, a New York jury found former President Donald Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation of the writer E. Jean Carroll, and awarded her $5 million. The case stems from an alleged rape in a Bergdorf Goodman’s dressing room in the mid-1990s, when Carroll says Trump followed her in and forced himself on her. Years later, when she started speaking out about the alleged attack, Trump used his enormous platform to claim it was “Hoax” and a “con job” – accusations Carroll said in her lawsuit damaged her reputation and her emotional well-being.
There is much to celebrate about this verdict: The holding to account of a man who has spent much of his life skirting the law; the utter failure of Trump’s victim-blaming defense; a woman who presented substantial evidence being believed above a man who presented virtually none. But perhaps most heartening is what this verdict says about the continued power and relevance of the #MeToo movement, and how fundamentally it has changed American society.
For many women’s rights advocates, the case between Amber Heard and Johnny Depp last year was top of mind during the Carroll-Trump trial. The Heard-Depp case also included allegations of assault and claims of defamation; when a jury largely found for Depp, it was a blow to feminist progress, and felt like part of a larger backlash against the gains of the #MeToo movement. Suddenly, the call to “believe women” was sounding awfully hollow – here was a woman who told her own story, and not only was she not believed, but she was legally punished for it. The Heard case felt like a warning to abuse survivors: You can speak out, but you may pay an exorbitant price.
The Carroll case says the opposite: That it’s worth fighting back, even against a man who was once arguably the most powerful person in the world.
This may not be the end of this saga. Trump can appeal; he continues to assert his innocence. But the verdict against him, like the criminal conviction of Harvey Weinstein, signals that there are at least some limits to what rich and powerful men can get away with.
When it comes to women, and many other aspects of his life, Trump’s egotism is clear. He was famously caught on tape bragging about grabbing women’s genitals, because when you’re a “star,” women let you assault them. He said more or less the same during his deposition in this case – and added, both revoltingly and questionably, that stars have gotten away with this for the last million years, “unfortunately or fortunately.” This jury didn’t seem to find the right to commit sexual abuse with impunity to be “fortunate.”
In fact, Trump and his legal team seemed so confident that Trump didn’t bother to show up in court. It’s not necessarily unusual that a defendant wouldn’t testify, and it would not be surprising for Trump’s lawyer to tell him not to – Trump is a loose cannon, and it’s hard to see how his testimony would go well. And the burden was on Carroll’s team to prove their claims.
But for a case this high-profile and high stakes, his team presented remarkably little evidence in his defense, besides smearing Carroll, asking why she didn’t scream for help, and simply accusing her of lying. Carroll’s team, by contrast, put forward as much evidence as might be reasonably possible in a case stemming from a decades-old event: Friends of Carroll’s who testified to contemporaneous phone calls in which Carroll told them about the assault; other women who claimed Trump had similarly attacked them, establishing a pattern and an MO; and Trump’s own words and character. The jury was tasked with weighing the evidence on both sides and deciding which was more convincing. It’s easy to see how they decided that was Carroll.
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This case was particularly notable because it involves a former President who is also a current presidential contender, and among the favorites to be the GOP nominee in 2024. A man whom a jury found to be liable for sexual abuse may again sit in the White House – that’s a stunning thing.
It will be telling, and I suspect depressing, to see how many Republican politicians and conservative voters react. Typically, we would expect any challengers to a candidate found liable for sexual abuse and defamation to bring that fact up fairly aggressively. Whether Trump’s opponents within the Republican Party will go that route, though, is an outstanding question – in recent years, the GOP has largely shied away from addressing what seems to be an endemic sexual assault and harassment problem in their candidate pool. And sexual harassment and assault accusations did not derail Trump in 2016. Perhaps eight years later, Republican voters will feel differently. But that seems far from guaranteed.
What does seem clear, though, is that the #MeToo movement is far from dead, even if it is still far from achieving all of its goals (what social movement, after all, has been wholly triumphant in only a few years?). That’s good news for feminists, and for the country. And the verdict should also be a warning to Republicans: Trump’s misogyny, the #MeToo movement, and the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade have all proven to be galvanizing forces for female voters. Now, their party’s leading horse has been found liable for sexual abuse by a jury of his peers, while he continues to face other legal threats. Trump is a liability. Women are outraged. #MeToo seems resurgent. Is this really who the GOP wants to gamble on?