Trump has been found liable for sexual abuse. Will it change anything?


Donald Trump has just been found liable for sexual battery against journalist E. Jean Carroll. After a civil trial that lasted two weeks and under three hours of deliberation, the jury found Trump not liable for rape but liable for sexual abuse and defamation. They have ordered Trump to pay Carroll $5 million in compensatory damages.

In New York state, sexual battery is any sex act performed without one party’s consent, while rape is sexual intercourse performed under “forcible compulsion.” The slightly ambiguous verdict is oddly fitting for the E. Jean Carroll-Trump case, which has been in a confusing position from the beginning. In one sense, it’s deeply important. It’s the first time a former US president has been accused of rape in a court of law. It’s the other shoe finally dropping after the long wait that began in October 2016 with the arrival of the Access Hollywood tape, on which Trump can be heard bragging about “grabbing” unconsenting women “by the pussy,” because “when you’re a star, they let you do it.”

This trial speaks directly to one of the issues that made Trump such an upsetting presidential candidate to begin with: He was not only inexperienced, incompetent, and bigoted, but it also looked extremely likely that he was an unrepentant sexual predator. When Trump nevertheless claimed victory over the woman widely expected to become America’s first female president, despite the Access Hollywood tape and despite accusations of sexual misconduct coming from at least 26 women, the irony was vicious and heartbreaking. Carroll’s lawsuit presented one possible remedy. In that sense, this case is vital.

In another sense, next to Trump’s other legal problems and alleged crimes, the Carroll case can seem to pale a little. It doesn’t touch on any of the damage Trump did during his time in office. It’s in no way relevant to Trump’s blatant corruption, his lies, the malicious mess he made of the onset of the Covid pandemic. It has nothing to do with the violence of the Capitol riot of January 6 or any of the rest of Trump’s public attempts to overthrow the results of an election. As a civil case, the Carroll trial doesn’t even come with the threat of potential jail time carried by New York’s Al Capone-like swing against Trump for financial crimes. Now, while Trump has been found guilty of sexual assault, the verdict stops short of actually tarring him with the word “rapist.”

There is the open question of how this trial will affect Trump’s chances in the upcoming 2024 presidential campaign. Prior to Trump’s norm-breaking and successful 2016 campaign, this question would not be open: The mere fact of the trial, regardless of the verdict, would render most aspiring presidents unelectable.

Trump’s perversely intense connection to his base, however, has survived plenty of scandals. For the Trump faithful, is anything up to and including a sexual battery liability verdict enough to move the numbers?

One possible read of Trump’s absence at the trial is that he thinks it isn’t. While Trump publicly threatened to show up in New York to “confront this,” apparently referring to the trial, he never appeared in the courtroom. (During jury deliberations, Trump falsely claimed he’d been barred from speaking in his own defense, which he was not.) Trump’s attorney, Joseph Tacopina, who initially planned to call a psychiatrist to the stand as an expert witness for the defense, ended by calling no witnesses for the defense at all, leaving Carroll’s argument essentially unrebutted.

“I’m here because Donald Trump raped me,” Carroll said at the beginning of her remarkably clear three-day testimony. She went on to describe in graphic detail her encounter with Trump in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the early 1990s.

Carroll’s time on the witness stand gave way to testimony from friends, who confirmed that she told them about the encounter shortly after it happened; from a psychiatric expert witness, who said Carroll’s decision not to scream during the attack and not to press charges afterward was common among rape victims; and from two other women who say Trump attacked them in similar ways.

Perhaps most damningly, Carroll’s team showed the jury videotaped excerpts from Trump’s deposition. There, he can be heard apparently doubling down on his infamous comments on the Access Hollywood tape, saying, “Historically, that’s true, with stars. Well what’s what if you look over the last million years, I guess that’s been largely true, not always, but largely true, unfortunately or fortunately.”

Jurors were also shown a clip of Trump saying that Jessica Leeds, who accused Trump of groping her, “would not be my first choice.” (He’s made similar claims about most of the women who have accused him of sexual assault, including Carroll.) “You wouldn’t be a choice of mine, either,” Trump informs Carroll’s attorney in the clip from his deposition. “I hope you’re not insulted.”

Meanwhile, Tacopina confined his argument to cross-examinations, in which he attempted to make much of the fact that most of the plaintiff witnesses shared a well-documented dislike of Trump. “What they want is for you to hate him enough to ignore the facts,” Tacopina told the jury in his closing statement. He also suggested that noted Trump hater George Conway was secretly masterminding the suit, and argued that Carroll’s testimony was so unbelievable it didn’t require a counter case, saying, “He didn’t tear apart her story. She tore apart her story.”

We don’t know why Trump and Tacopina so showily declined to make a case of their own in Trump’s defense. It’s plausible, however, that Trump decided he didn’t need a case. If he lost, he faced no risk of jail time. He could hold off on paying the damages while tying up the case in appeals. As for politics — well, by this time, after the Access Hollywood tape, after 26 women have already accused him of sexual misconduct — how much could a pesky little thing like being found legally liable for rape actually hurt him?

Now, in a triumph of hair-splitting, he’s been found not liable for rape, but only for sexual battery. What are such nuisances for a figure as bulletproof as Trump?

Recently, though, an unexpected tremor felled another apparently immortal giant of the right-wing media ecosystem, possibly indicating that such a verdict is something that might hurt Trump.

In April, Fox News fired Tucker Carlson, one of the network’s biggest stars, apparently due to concerns that a text from Carlson might become public. In the text, Carlson describes watching a video of several Trump supporters attacking someone he referred to as “an Antifa kid.”

“Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously. It’s not how white men fight,” Carlson allegedly said in the text.

As far as anyone can tell, that’s the line that got Carlson fired: the simple explicit racism of the sentence, “It’s not how white men fight.”

For many, the line Fox apparently drew between that racist text and all the other racist things Carlson has said live on air was puzzling. “It’s certainly a terrible sentiment (and a false one), but is it any worse than mainstreaming the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy theory developed by white supremacists?” writes Vox’s Zack Beauchamp, summarizing the popular consensus on the left. “Is it more offensive than saying immigrants make America ‘poorer, and dirtier, and more divided’? Is it more racist than downplaying the killings of unarmed Black men by the police, or accusing Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson (who is Black) of putting on a fake ‘sharecropper’ accent?”

The text isn’t meaningfully more racist than the rest of what Carlson regularly said on his show, but it did do something important. As Beauchamp lays out, the text removed the fig leaf that allows Carlson’s fans to comfortably lie to themselves that they and Carlson are not actually racist.

“A core part of Tucker Carlson’s message is that he, and his viewers, are colorblind: that they are standing up for the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr. against liberals who want to polarize America along racial lines for their own nefarious purposes,” Beauchamp writes. The sentence “It’s not how white men fight” makes it much harder for Carlson to keep pretending that he’s colorblind.

It’s possible that by finding Trump legally liable for sexual battery, the jury has handed him his own version of the secret Tucker Carlson text. They have removed the last shred of plausible deniability that Donald Trump is not a sexual predator.

I doubt that this verdict will matter to the hardcore Trumpists. They can say that the trial was fixed; that the swamp has it in for Trump; that everyone knows New York courts are a joke; and that anyway, it wasn’t even “real” rape. They will stay loyal to the end, in the same way that Carlson’s diehard fans are now clinging to his every word on Twitter.

There are people who voted for Trump in 2016, though, for whom this verdict may matter. The people who have been telling themselves that it’s all gossip, that nothing has been proven in court, that all of Trump’s accusers were just lying for the attention and the fame, that the Access Hollywood tape was just “locker room talk.” The people who tell pollsters that while they support Trump, they do have some worries about the “rape case.” Those worries are now justified.

We know that America is a country capable of choosing a president who very likely committed sexual assault. We’re a long way away from Election Day 2024, and there’s a lot that can happen between now and then. But when Election Day comes, we’ll at last find out whether America is a country capable of choosing a president who was found liable for sexual abuse in a court of law.


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