It’s “just” a civil case, no felonies for undermining democracy, but the trial centered on former Elle magazine advice columnist E. Jean Carroll suing Donald Trump for battery is scheduled to begin on April 25. The charge of battery includes any unwanted assault or touching.
The trial should be a doozy with head-turning implications for how women view Trump’s renewed bid for the presidency and the Republican Party in the lead up to the 2024 election.
Women voters are the cornerstone of any successful presidential campaign, and Trump has survived multiple crises that no other politician could survive, notably the Access Hollywood tape that surfaced the month before the 2016 election where he was heard boasting that his celebrity meant he could do whatever to women, including “grab ‘em by the pussy.”
Elizabeth Jean Carroll claims Trump assaulted and raped her three decades ago, and she was able to file her lawsuit charging him with battery late last year after New York passed an Adult Survivors Act that allows civil claims to be made years after an alleged attack. Her encounter with Trump occurred in a Bergdorf Goodman department store dressing room in the mid-1990s when Trump asked her help in picking out a gift which led them to the lingerie department.
After some joking about who would try on what, she alleges he followed her into the dressing room and forced himself on her.
Trump has repeatedly denied her claim, writing on Truth Social as recently as last year, “It is a Hoax and a lie, just like all the other Hoaxes that have been played on me for the past seven years. And, while I am not supposed to say it, I will. This woman is not my type!”
Carroll is expected to take the stand and testify, and it will be the first time we see a woman victim of rape of her generation speak out publicly in a high-profile trial against a presidential candidate. Carroll is almost 80 years old, and the assault happened almost 30 years ago.
Justice delayed is often justice denied, but Carroll is getting her day in court in a more favorable environment than she might have gotten at the time of the alleged assault.
“The MeToo movement made women very aware of the courage it takes to speak out because of the power dynamic, and this is an older woman that older women can relate to,” says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who specializes in female voting patterns. “Older non-college white women are the key swing vote, and this is a case they can look at and say, ‘I know exactly how that happened, and it is clearly wrong.’”
Trump was a celebrity in New York at that time, his picture often in the newspaper, and Carroll was a writer whose “gonzo journalism” was praised by The New York Times as feminism’s answer to Hunter S. Thompson. She revealed the details of her encounter with Trump in her 2019 book, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal, which she modeled after the 17th Century satirical writer Jonathan Swift’s Immodest Proposal.
When the excerpt about Trump appeared in New York magazine, Trump called Carroll a “liar” and uttered the first of his “not my type” denials. Carroll sued for defamation, a case that the presiding New York Judge Lewis Kaplan has put on hold while the battery case proceeds after refusing Carroll’s request to join the two together.
In the sworn deposition he gave last year, Trump was asked if he recognized a woman in a photograph. “Yeah, that’s Marla,” he said, “That’s my wife.” His attorney corrected him. It was E. Jean Carroll and not his ex-wife Marla Maples.
Judge Kaplan earlier ruled that the jury could view the Access Hollywood tape, and other women who have spoken out about Trump’s unwanted advances over the years could also take the stand.
“People have to be reminded—women have to be reminded—why they dislike this guy. If you’re a businesswoman, you might like the Republican Party, but you don’t like this!”
— Elaine Kamarck
Anything that keeps Trump’s character failings in the public eye is good for Democrats. “This is a motivator,” says Elaine Kamarck, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “People have to be reminded—women have to be reminded—why they dislike this guy. If you’re a businesswoman, you might like the Republican Party, but you don’t like this!”
Carroll’s case is unlikely to change anything dramatically, but in a country as divided as we are, small shifts in any direction can be meaningful. “It’s one more brick in the load,” says Jack Pitney, Professor of Politics at Claremont McKenna College. “By itself, it’s not going to decide any elections. But it’s just part of an overall pattern that is very unacceptable to a large portion of the electorate.”
Republican pollster Whit Ayres says the Carroll case could have the unintended effect of undermining more serious charges likely to follow out of Georgia and the Department of Justice.
“It plays into Donald Trump’s hands,” he says, by allowing Trump’s allies to argue that Democrats “will stop at absolutely nothing to get Trump including dredging up long-ago accusations that have nothing to do with the problems the American people face.”
“Women made up their minds when they first heard him (on the Access Hollywood tape),” says Ayres. “This will reinforce strongly existing attitudes, not change anybody’s mind.”
“The stuff that’s going on, starting with abortion and running through Trump, is guaranteeing a lot of women, including suburban women, are going to come out in 2024.”
— Bill Galston
After what we’ve watched Trump say, do, and get away with for the last eight years, any pronouncements of what’s next for Trump should be made with appropriate humility. Bill Galston, a senior fellow in the governance studies program at Brookings, recalls his confidence early on that any candidate who steps on a land mine every day can’t survive as a politician. But Trump survived, boasting that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose a single vote.
“Ask me if E. Jean Carroll will change any minds in the primary, my answer is no way,” says Galston. But the general election is a different matter with a Republican field led by Trump and hampered by extreme views on abortion. “The stuff that’s going on, starting with abortion and running through Trump, is guaranteeing a lot of women, including suburban women, are going to come out in 2024.”
Now that Trump is a private citizen, Carroll gets her day in court. And when she takes the stand, she will speak for a lot of women of her generation, and the generations that follow. Their voices will be heard with their ballots.