Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Opinion | At last, a measure of justice for Donald Trump

Opinion | At last, a measure of justice for Donald Trump


A federal jury has determined that Donald Trump is a sexual predator. How gratifying it is to type those words, after all these years and all those stories about Trump’s treatment of women.

Trump still has criminal indictments to go — one pending, others anticipated — before his legal travails are over. Yet the civil verdict in E. Jean Carroll v. Donald Trump imposes — finally — some consequences on a man who has been a Houdini of accountability. Anyone paying attention knew who this man was and what he had done. Now the legal system has ratified that assessment.

The verdict — that Trump subjected Carroll to sexual abuse and then defamed her when he called her claims a “hoax” and “complete con job” — will not change minds. Still, it is an ineradicable part of the record, perhaps only the beginning of a legal system holding Trump responsible for his actions, however belatedly. The jury did not find that Trump had raped Carroll, but the size of the damages award — $5 million — underscores the seriousness with which they viewed his conduct. So does the fact that the jurors had to find by “clear and convincing” evidence — higher than the usual civil standard — that Trump’s defamatory statements about Carroll were false.

The outcome offers a gratifying measure of the imperfect progress that women have made in bringing claims of sexual assault and harassment. Carroll was able to sue for sexual assault only thanks to a New York law enacted last year, the Adult Survivors Act, that opened a one-year window extending the statute of limitations in civil actions related to sexual offenses — a recognition that victims have been understandably reluctant to come forward with such claims.

Yes, Trump lawyer Joe Tacopina harangued Carroll about why she didn’t scream, why she couldn’t pinpoint the precise date that Trump attacked her in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman in the mid-1990s, why she didn’t come forward at the time. That tired playbook — how often we have had to endure it — didn’t work with the jury of six men and three women.

“An unbelievable work of fiction,” Tacopina called Carroll’s assertion. Nice try. Two friends — Lisa Birnbach and Carol Martin — testified that Carroll had shared the story with them shortly after the incident happened. Two other women — Natasha Stoynoff and Jessica Leeds — recounted similar incidents in which, they said, Trump suddenly assaulted them, in a public space at Mar-a-Lago and on an airplane.

“They have nothing to do with whether you believe E. Jean Carroll’s unbelievable story,” Tacopina asserted. Fact check: Yes, they did. As Carroll attorney Roberta Kaplan argued, Trump’s modus operandi is consistent — he seizes the moment, seems to revel in the surprise attack. Tacopina hammered the argument that Carroll’s account was based on a 2012 “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” episode in which a woman is raped in a dressing room in the lingerie section of Bergdorf’s.

“They modeled their secret scheme on an episode of one of the most popular shows on television,” Tacopina said. Some scheme. If you were going to invent a story, wouldn’t you actually invent one — or, if you couldn’t manage that, pick a more obscure example? Tacopina’s claim also asked jurors to conclude that not only Carroll but also her two friends concocted a false story and perjured themselves.

The strongest witness against Trump, though, was Trump himself. He didn’t turn up at the trial — in fact, his attorneys called no witnesses; how could they? But his videotaped deposition, parts of which were shown to the jury, was damning.

Trump trotted out his self-incriminating “not my type” defense about Carroll — for good measure insulting her lawyer’s appearance. “You wouldn’t be a choice of mine either, to be honest with you. I hope you’re not insulted,” Trump told Kaplan. “I would not under any circumstances have any interest in you.”

Imagine how thrilled Trump’s lawyers were with that gratuitous, sure-to-charm-the-jurors aside. No wonder they didn’t put him on the stand.

Then Trump undercut his own pathetic defense by mistaking a picture of Carroll for that of his ex-wife Marla Maples. Not his type indeed.

And Trump pre-confessed in the “Access Hollywood” tape. He has had six years since that conversation was published to come up with an explanation, beyond locker room talk, of his “when you’re a star, they let you do it.” Instead, questioned by Kaplan, Trump could not avoid revealing his true self.

“Historically, that’s true, with stars,” Trump testified.

“True that they can grab women by the p—y?” Kaplan asked.

“Well, that’s what — if you look over the last million years, I guess that’s been largely true. Not always, but largely true,” Trump replied. He paused and then, as he does, kept going. “Unfortunately or fortunately.”

Fortunately? Fortunately?

“Who would say the word ‘fortunately’ to describe the act of sexual assault?” Kaplan asked the jury.

We know who. The man who was and would be president.

Will this verdict do anything to stop him? Probably not. This isn’t a criminal conviction. The jury had to decide to credit Carroll’s account by only a preponderance of the evidence — not the higher criminal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt. Trump could have raped E. Jean Carroll in the middle of Fifth Avenue and his true believers wouldn’t care. The rest of us have long known who he is and what he is capable of.

In Trump’s twisted world, any loss — at the ballot box or in court — is the result of a system rigged against him, and Tuesday brought more of the same. Trump falsely claimed even before the verdict that he was “not allowed to speak or defend myself.” (The judge went out of his way to give Trump last-minute leeway to change his mind and testify.) After the jury spoke, the Trump campaign complained that “in jurisdictions wholly controlled by the Democratic Party our nation’s justice system is now compromised by extremist, left-wing politics.”

Justice is dispensed in small, imperfect doses. A single teaspoonful will not cure the disease. But it is a start.



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