The Pain and Paradox of E. Jean Carroll’s Crusade Against Trump

The Pain and Paradox of E. Jean Carroll’s Crusade Against Trump

The Pain and Paradox of E. Jean Carroll’s Crusade Against Trump

In her second go-round, seeking damages for his lies about her, the accomplished journalist had to prove she was damaged.


Here is the paradox of E. Jean Carroll’s brave and extraordinary second legal showdown with serial sexual abuser Donald Trump: To convince a jury that he should pay her damages for defamation—denying he even knew her, let alone sexually assaulted her; in effect, saying that she was too unattractive for him to rape—this dignified, accomplished woman has to prove that she was, in fact, damaged.

I found poignancy in what Carroll did on the witness stand Wednesday and Thursday, testifying to her pain, fear, and vulnerability, and the collapse of her stellar journalism career, in the wake of Trump’s false and cruel claims about her. (Remember that in May a jury found him liable for sexually assaulting her almost 20 years ago and also awarded her damages.) She’d spent her life after growing up in Middle America—she was Miss Indiana University in the 1960s—building a successful, even glamorous, social and professional life, an “only in New York” life. And now she had to deconstruct it and show the extent to which she became a victim. First of sexual assault (in Bergdorf Goodman—“only in New York”), which the last jury believed and found Trump liable for, and, after she went public with the assault, of Trump’s lies, and the resulting violent threats and abuse of his supporters.

On the other hand, we have to remember that Carroll chose to tear down that façade herself, because the pain of pretending Trump’s assault didn’t happen intensified for her over the years. She has spoken about how, as the #MeToo movement exploded, coincidentally or not in the wake of Trump’s election, women began writing in to her hilarious and beloved “Ask E. Jean” advice column in Elle magazine, wondering if they should come forward about the sexual affronts and even abuse they too had suffered. She began to feel like a hypocrite suggesting that other women do the brave thing. So she came forward, and her world came undone.

I heard bits and pieces of Carroll’s testimony on the stand over the last two days, from reporters who were in the courtroom; no cameras were permitted. Predictably, of course, Trump’s histrionics, and not Carroll’s quiet dignity, grabbed the headlines. And I get that. It’s newsworthy. But I think it’s important to listen to what she had to say.

First, here’s just a smidgen of Trump’s trademark narcissism and compulsive outrage. On Wednesday, Judge Lewis Kaplan repeatedly warned him to stop glowering, chuckling, huffing and puffing, banging the table, and whispering loudly about Carroll and her lawyers’ alleged lies. (His equally ridiculous lawyer, Alina Habba, was formally rebuked by Kaplan at least 14 times, according to Business Insider.) This might be the best/most awful Trump-Kaplan clash, following one of the disgraced ex-president’s many outbursts:

Judge Kaplan: “Mr. Trump, I hope I don’t have to consider excluding you from the trial. I understand you’re probably eager for me to do that.”

Trump: “I would love it.”

Judge Kaplan: “I know you would like it. You just can’t control yourself in this circumstance, apparently.”

Trump (sullenly): “You can’t either.”

I know you are but what am I? Yes, this disturbed delinquent grade schooler is currently leading President Joe Biden in most polls.

So that got the most attention, but Carroll’s brave testimony mattered more. She described the abuse she suffered once Trump not only denied her sexual assault claim against him in mid-2019 but began insulting her and calling her some variation on “deranged.”

“I was attacked,” she told the courtroom. “I was attacked on Twitter. I was brutally attacked on Facebook. I was attacked in news blogs. I was attacked in messages. As I said, it was a new world. I had left the world of facts, a lovely world, and I was living in a new universe.”

She described how she went from a journalist published in Rolling Stone, Esquire, New York, and of course Elle, where she had a perch for more than two decades, to a struggling but widely lauded Substacker. Maybe more important, she described the violent threats she received, and how they shook her.

“I bought bullets for the gun I had inherited from my father,” Carroll said. She rescued a pitbull, a companion and potential protector. Her voice quavered when she read a violent e-mail she’d received, telling her “to stick a gun in my mouth and pull the trigger.” Being a writer, she elaborated: “When a woman sees the words, we can’t help but think of the image…. And I imagine that many of us now can picture that.” We can.

Appallingly, Habba’s Trump defense consisted of telling Carroll that because she has more celebrity friends now since she went public with Trump’s abuse, and more followers on “Twitter”—I guess she’s missed the decomposition of that hellsite—she can’t claim damages. Carroll persevered.

“Previously, I was known simply as a journalist,” she countered, “and now I’m known as the liar, the fraud and the ‘wack job.’” She acknowledged that more people know who she is, but added, “I’m hated by more people too.” Habba then claimed Carroll brought that on herself by continuing to talk about what Trump had done, worsening rather than “mitigating the damage.”

Habba, surprisingly, was widely judged effective when she cross-examined former Trump lawyer turned Trump exposer Michael Cohen during the Trump organization business fraud trial late last year. But she didn’t lay a finger on Carroll. Most attorneys I saw commenting about her tactics felt she’d failed.

Her gambit to prove that Carroll damaged herself by going public with her Trump abuse story—a story a jury found Trump liable for in May, recall—failed miserably, with Judge Kaplan asking her to back up her novel argument that a victim has “a duty to mitigate damages” when the trial resumes next week. I predict it won’t go well for her.

Carroll repeatedly admitted the pain she suffered not only from the sexual assault but the abuse from Trump and his MAGA followers. “I’m known as a liar, a wack job, a paid political operative. I’m none of those things. I’m 80 years old. I’m a journalist,” she testified. And when her lawyer asked how it felt when Trump made ugly comments about her appearance, she confessed: “It makes it hard for a girl to get up in the morning,” and continued, “I know I’m old. I know I’m 80. I know I’m not a pretty young woman, but it makes it tough to go on with the day.”

As a woman of not quite that age, but past a certain age, that stung me a little. Barbarians like Trump still think they can judge us, even if we’re happy to be past the age of being judged. Men never, ever suffer that.

But I want to highlight the journalist’s hint of the only good that’s come of this ordeal: getting to know her whole self. “The public E. Jean Carroll is the cheerleader, the buoyant, indestructible old lady, who counsels her friends on how to be happy,” she told the court. “The private E.Jean is quiet; sometimes she feels pain. I’ve gotten to know that E. Jean better, and I like her. She and I are becoming better and better acquainted.”

I wouldn’t wish her ordeal on anyone, but that’s worth savoring. In this non-lawyer’s opinion, she still deserves damages.

Meanwhile, Trump bleated, “I, frankly, am the one that suffered damages.” He is by far the most damaged, but nobody did that to him but himself.

Editor’s Note: This article initially misstated the location where E. Jean Carroll was sexually assaulted by Donald Trump. The article has been corrected.

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