“This trial is about getting him to stop, once and for all,” the lawyer Roberta Kaplan said on Friday morning, during closing arguments in the case styled Carroll v. Trump. Five years ago, Kaplan’s client, the writer E. Jean Carroll, wrote an article in New York magazine describing how Donald Trump once forced himself on her in a Manhattan department-store dressing room. Since then, Trump has regularly attacked Carroll publicly, not only denying that the assault happened but calling her a “whack job” who should “pay dearly” for entering “dangerous territory.” Online, his legions of fans have subjected her to further threats and abuse, for daring to speak out against their supreme leader. On Friday afternoon, a jury of nine New Yorkers sided with her, saying that the former President had defamed her, and ordering him to pay dearly: $83.3 million in damages.
It’s a huge number. Last spring, after hearing a related case that Carroll brought against Trump, an earlier jury had also sided with Carroll, concluding that Trump had sexually abused her and then defamed her—but the award in that case was five million dollars. During this second trial, which began in mid-January, Carroll’s lawyers emphasized that Trump’s attacks on their client continued, even after the first jury found against him. “This is a fake story, made-up story,” Trump said at a CNN town hall last spring. “What kind of a woman meets somebody and brings them up and within minutes you’re playing hanky-panky in a dressing room?” If anything, the attacks escalated after the last trial. “For more than four years, he has not stopped,” Shawn Crowley, another of Carroll’s lawyers, said. “How much money will it take to make him stop?” Kaplan, during her closing arguments, reminded the jurors that Trump claims to be a billionaire. “It will take an unusually high punitive-damages award to stop Donald Trump,” she said. She suggested at least twenty-four million dollars. The jurors came to $83.3 million all on their own.
Shortly after the verdict was read, Trump posted on Truth Social, his proprietary fan site. “I fully disagree with both verdicts, and will be appealing this whole Biden Directed Witch Hunt focused on me and the Republican Party,” he wrote. (Never mind that Carroll first sued Trump in 2019, long before Biden was elected.) “They have taken away all First Amendment Rights,” he added. The post was absurd. But Trump didn’t say anything about Carroll in his rant, which must have felt like part of the victory to her.
Trump skipped the trial during Carroll’s earlier case against him, but was in the courtroom several times for this one, which began the day after he won the Iowa caucuses. At first, I thought he was attending for the drama so that he could fly to New Hampshire afterward and tell a crowd that he’d come straight from a Manhattan courtroom—and, boy, were his aides tired. But, after the verdict was announced, I wondered if Trump perhaps realized earlier than most that he was in bigger trouble this time around.
Throughout the two-week trial, Trump deliberately made himself a nuisance in the courtroom. During jury selection, when Judge Lewis Kaplan (no relation to Roberta Kaplan) asked several dozen potential jurors if any of them believed the 2020 election was stolen, Trump cheekily raised his hand. “Witch hunt,” he muttered loudly to his lawyers on the trial’s second day. “Con job.” When Judge Kaplan threatened to eject him from the courtroom, Trump replied, “I would love it.” On Thursday, as the judge and one of Trump’s lawyers argued about what he would be allowed to say after he took the stand, Trump piped up from the defense table. “I don’t know who this woman is,” he said, looking in the direction of Carroll, who was seated two tables away, “never met this woman.” As he said this, he made a gesture spreading his hands, something that I for some reason thought he only did on TV. On Friday, Trump stormed out of the courtroom during Roberta Kaplan’s closing argument, only to slink back in a while later, when one of his lawyers was talking.
It’s almost impossible to keep track of the number of lawyers Trump has gone through since becoming President, but his primary lawyer during this trial was Alina Habba, previously known for representing Siggy Flicker, a former “Real Housewives of New Jersey” cast member who accused Facebook of disabling her account after she wished the former First Lady Melania Trump a happy birthday. Habba seemed unable to distinguish between her client’s interests and his opinion, raising her voice and sparring constantly with Judge Kaplan, who at one point suggested to Habba, “You should refresh your memory about how it is you get a document into evidence.”
It’s a credit to the jurors that they didn’t go for any of these distractions. In addition to asking prospective jurors whether they believed the 2020 election was stolen during jury selection, Judge Kaplan asked them for information about their political histories and news-consumption habits. Most of the prospective jurors weren’t much involved in politics, and didn’t read or watch or hear much news. The majority of the people in the room said they hadn’t heard about the case before arriving in the courtroom, even though it involved an ex-President being confirmed as a sexual predator. And yet, after taking a close look at the facts, nine people picked at random determined that Trump was responsible for what he did, and needed to be punished for it. In this, the jury has gone further than the United States Congress was able to go. It gives you some kind of hope.
On Tuesday, the networks called the New Hampshire Republican Party Presidential primary for Trump the minute the polls closed. The political reality is that Trump has a grip on the G.O.P.’s voting base—but the legal reality is that Trump is in increasingly deep shit. When will these two realities collide, and what will happen when they do? Does Trump even have $83.3 million? (Letitia James, New York State’s attorney general, is currently seeking three hundred and seventy million dollars from Trump in a separate civil case, related to the Trump Organization’s shady business practices.) In the meantime, there’s Carroll. She may wind up being a hero in American history. Most people don’t know who she is, but she was once a pretty big deal. She got the idea to sue Trump from George Conway—the conservative lawyer who was married to the Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway—whom she spoke with at a party in the summer of 2019, a few months after her article ran in New York magazine. A few months later, Elle ended her long-running advice column, “Ask E. Jean.” She was in her mid-seventies at the time, and the President of the United States was publicly hoping that something horrible would happen to her. She now sleeps with a loaded gun next to her bed. ♦