Today a federal judge in New York seated a jury to hear E. Jean Carroll’s defamation case against Donald Trump. The lawyers made opening statements. The jury consists of nine people: six men and three women.
Unlike the prosecution in Manhattan, the investigations that are still ongoing in Fulton County, Georgia, and before a federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., this is a civil case. But it’s an unusual one, with high stakes and also some confusing procedural twists. We’ll undoubtedly get into those as the week progresses, but tonight, I want to focus on the stakes.
This case is what has been dubbed Carroll II. It’s the second of two lawsuits brought by Carroll. The first case, Carroll I, is a defamation suit based on Trump’s derogatory comments about Carroll made while he was the sitting president. That case was on hold while the D.C. courts determined whether Trump was acting within the scope of his official duties when he made those comments. Although the court recently ruled, concluding the issue was one that a jury should decide, which presumably frees the case for a future trial, those allegations aren’t at stake this week.
This week’s trial involves a second incident of defamation, in 2022 in a Truth Social post, where Trump called Carroll’s allegation that he had raped her “a Hoax and a lie” and said she wasn’t his type. There is also a charge of battery, based on the rape itself, which Carroll says occurred in the mid-1990s. Normally a charge of that nature would be barred by the statute of limitations this far down the road. But a recently adopted law in New York allows adult survivors of sexual abuse a grace period to sue their alleged attacker now. Carroll filed suit the day the law passed.
That makes this, in a sense, a criminal case dressed up in civil claims. The burden of proof is lower; Carroll need only convince the jury that Trump committed a battery on her by a preponderance of the evidence. If this were a criminal rape trial, it would have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
Under New York law, assault is a criminal charge involving the intent to cause injury to another. It can range from a simple misdemeanor to a serious felony charge like assault with an intent to kill or assault with a deadly weapon. If there is a conviction in an assault case, the defendant goes to prison. In New York, battery is a civil tort (an act that injures or harms another person). A plaintiff who files a lawsuit like Carroll’s is seeking monetary damages.
Even though Carroll’s battery charge is a civil one, she will have to convince the jury that Trump more likely than not raped her in a Manhattan dressing room. And that will have repercussions if it happens. The expectation is that two other witnesses who were assaulted by Trump will testify in support of Carroll’s case. Until now, there has been talk of Trump’s pattern of this conduct, buttressed by his own remarks, like the Access Hollywood tape where he talked about grabbing women by the p**** and that he could do that because he was a star. But no court proceeding has ever resulted in a verdict against Trump for assaulting a woman. If Carroll wins this case, and her evidence is quite strong—she told two friends about the attack contemporaneously but didn’t go to the police out of fear Trump could ruin her, something that was sadly borne out by his behavior almost three decades later—the country will again be placed in an unprecedented situation by the former president.
It’s possible that people will accept the verdict. The country will be in a frightening place. The leading candidate for the presidency in a major party will have been adjudged by a jury to be a rapist. Perhaps it will affect his political future, as it should. It is equally possible that it will not, given the GOP’s stunning reversal on issues of morality they used to characterize as their core family values. But the notion that a former president and a current candidate attacked a woman in a department store, lied about it, and savagely defamed her character over it would be a low-water mark in an era full of them.
Alternatively, as has so often been the case, a verdict in Carroll’s favor could be rejected as fake news. Trump has never been shy about damaging the public’s confidence in our legal system when it serves his own ends. There’s no reason to believe he would start now; he doesn’t even plan to be in the courtroom this week. Trump might fulfill his own prophecy that he could shoot a man on 5th Avenue without losing any support by losing a civil case over whether he raped a woman and remaining in place as the leading contender for the Republican nomination.
Somewhere on Earth One, Hillary Clinton is happily playing with her grandbabies as she nears the end of her second term in office. Women have not been reduced to second-class citizenship in 2023 America.
But instead, here we are in post-Trump America, where warning signs are flashing everywhere for anyone who cares to pay attention. And the prospect of the country finally being forced to face what has long been sidestepped, hard proof that the former president didn’t just talk about it, but actually assaulted a woman, will be of major significance no matter how the public reacts.
Today we also heard from Abby Grossberg, the former booking producer at Fox News who has sued her former employer. She gave an interview to Nicolle Wallace on Deadline: White House, and it was a bombshell. First off, it’s important to acknowledge that Grossberg is no hero. She said in the interview that she had been willing to lie under oath in a deposition to save her job. In fact, her entire time at Fox seems to have revolved around a desire to avoid killing off her career in an environment that valued her almost less than it valued the truth of what it told its viewers on air. There is no exception to the obligation to be truthful in a court proceeding for people who are afraid that their job is at risk, but it took bravery to come forward and tell the truth. Grossberg candidly said she did it, when she realized she was being set up to take the fall for the entire Dominion complaint.
There’s space here to feel a little empathy for the position Grossberg was in. But the reality is, she took the job voluntarily and says she stayed because she believed in Maria Bartiromo, until she left her show to work for Tucker Carlson, in part because she thought his status would provide her with protection. That she didn’t flee when Carlson started lying about fraud and the outcome of the 2020 election—which she knew about; it was her notes and tapes of pre-interviews that brought the evidence that Fox tried to conceal to light—suggests a level of complicity. It’s complicated, though. Grossberg was also, according to her complaint, working in a hostile environment that was saturated with conduct that demeaned and belittled women. That can impact judgment. Fox has said her allegations are wrong and can be disproven. They said that at the outset of the Dominion case too. Time will tell.
But something that is clear is that whether Grossberg’s lawsuit was the precursor to Carlson’s sudden departure from the network or not, the environment there was formidably hostile to women. What must his wife and his daughters think? Grossberg’s complaint says that Carlson expressed the following opinions:
That arranged marriages between adults and children are not rape because “the rapist” makes a lifelong commitment to take care of his victim
That sex workers are sluts
That he would “love” the idea of 14-year-old girls experimenting sexually with each other, although he really shouldn’t where his own daughters’ school was involved
Carroll and Grossberg’s lawsuits have both captured public attention at a time when it’s become clear that it’s open season on women’s rights in parts of this country. There’s Dobbs. There’s the failure to make the Equal Rights Amendment the law of the land. There’s the ascension to the Supreme Court of a woman who was, literally, a handmaid. And Tucker Carlson was permitted by Fox to stay in place as one of the most-watched cable news hosts in the country until Monday despite the knowledge that he had said women are “extremely primitive, they’re basic, they’re not that hard to understand.”
Back in March 2021, no less of a staid institution than the Pentagon felt compelled to rebuke Carlson for saying, “So we’ve got new hairstyles and maternity flight suits—pregnant women are going to fight our wars. It’s a mockery of the U.S. military.” He made those comments after two women—Gen. Jacqueline D. Van Ovost of the Air Force and Lt. Gen. Laura J. Richardson of the Army—were nominated to lead combat commands. Tucker Carlson, who never served a day in uniform in his life and was reportedly rejected when he applied for a job with the CIA after college, had the temerity to criticize high ranking military personnel because they are women.
The Pentagon tweeted this to drive home the point.
But the damage has been done. Misogyny has seeped into the mainstream of modern life. Someday, historians may look back and conclude there were many people in post-Trump America suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Women certainly are. They knew early—they organized the nationwide women’s marches the day after his inauguration. Today they’re living with the consequences of that administration, Trump’s contempt for women, reversals of legal rights, and a general acceptance of attitudes that shouldn’t be tolerated. Consider doing something to support the women around you today, like the tweet the Pentagon sent out. There are women who’ve toughed it out and kept fighting for what’s right in a difficult time. There’s a bit of a hostile environment, nationally, for women, and we’re all feeling it. Let’s make sure we take care of each other.
We’re in this together,
Dear Joyce Vance, Thank you so much for your voice of wisdom and empathy for all women. These are troubling times and we must do everything we can to elect and re-elect Democrats in local and national elections. We should not listen to the polls as they are designed to derail our fruitful efforts. Let’s finish the job TOGETHER! Denise
No honorable man tolerates misogyny. And I hope that more and more conservative women vote to unseat the dishonorable people who have taken over the Republican party, even if it means losing the next presidential election. Republicans need to lose and lose big to change their leadership. Here's to the brave women who are victims of assault and workplace discrimination and mistreatment who stand up and say "no more."