Updated on May 9 at 4:46 p.m. ET
The perpetual circus and endless scandals that attend Donald Trump, whether in his personal life, business, or politics can obscure the utter strangeness of the circumstances of any one case. So pause to consider what happened today in a Manhattan courtroom: A jury, after fewer than three hours of deliberation, concluded that the former president sexually abused and defamed the writer E. Jean Carroll, though jurors also concluded her accusation of rape wasn’t proven. The jury awarded Carroll about $5 million in damages.
That result is astonishing. This is a former president of America, being found liable by a jury—of his peers—for defamation resulting from an act of sexual violence perpetrated nearly 30 years ago. The verdict is a sign of two competing truths about American society today: The country has become more willing to hold powerful men to account for their behavior and yet, at the same time, is still willing to give them power, again and again.
“Make no mistake, this entire bogus case is a political endeavor targeting President Trump because he is now an overwhelming front-runner to be once again elected President of the United States,” his campaign said in a statement. “President Trump will never stop fighting for the American people, no matter what the radical Democrats dream up next. This case will be appealed, and we will ultimately win.”
The shock of the verdict is not because the allegation was particularly difficult to believe. On one side was Carroll, whose account of the incident was clear, consistent, and nauseating in its specificity. Carroll sued Trump for defamation after he brushed off the allegation by saying, “She’s not my type.”
On the other side was Trump. The former president faced a challenge in defending himself in the case. Much of Carroll’s account matched a modus operandi that at least 26 women who accused Trump of sexual assault have described. Carroll interviewed five of them for a series in The Atlantic in 2020. (Trump denies the allegations.) Trump himself described his approach in the infamous leaked recording from Access Hollywood in which he boasted about sexually assaulting women. “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything,” he said. “Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”
Trump also didn’t bother to show up for the trial, claiming that he wanted to spare New Yorkers the traffic jams his presence would cause. Last week, while in Ireland, he said he would fly home to appear in court but, surprising no one, he didn’t. Trump’s absence might have reflected a recognition from the outset that he was likely to lose, and a desire to distance himself from the case. And although it’s impossible to determine how much his decision was a factor in the trial’s outcome, by failing to show up, he sent a message to the jury that he wasn’t invested in defending himself. His lawyers reinforced the message by declining to call any witnesses and instead trying to pick apart Carroll’s case during cross examination. (What kind of witness would Trump have called anyway? Finding an alibi witness for a moment 27 years ago would be tough, and who would be a convincing character witness?)
Carroll’s lawyers made Trump a presence in the courtroom anyway, playing excerpts from a deposition for the case to devastating effect. In one instance, going straight at Trump’s “not my type” defense, Carroll’s lawyer showed him a photograph of Carroll. Asked to identify her, he mistook Carroll for his ex-wife Marla Maples, whom Trump had to admit was his type.
More appalling was his discussion of the Access Hollywood tape. Trump, both in the past and in the deposition, wrote that off as “locker room” talk. But he couldn’t bring himself to repudiate or even distance himself from the comments, even now, nearly two decades later.
“Well, historically, that’s true with stars,” he said.
“True with stars that they can grab women by the pussy?” Carroll’s attorney Roberta Kaplan asked.
“Well, that’s what—if you look over the last million years, I guess that’s been largely true,” Trump said. “Not always, but largely true. Unfortunately or fortunately.”
Unfortunately or fortunately.
“And you consider yourself to be a star?” Kaplan prodded.
“I think you can say that, yeah,” Trump replied smugly.
In citing the last million years as precedent, he seemed to believe he was still living in them. Trump is not the first man to be both president and a sexual assaulter, but he is the first to have a jury find so. The verdict against him shows that in at least one case, with one high-profile and unrepentant defendant, the old world in which powerful men could do anything they wanted to women has passed away. Things have changed a little in the past 1 million years—or at least in the past 30.