NEW YORK — A nearly 30-year-old rape claim against Donald Trump went to trial Tuesday as jurors in the federal civil case heard a former advice columnist’s allegation of being attacked in a luxury department store dressing room. The former president says nothing happened between them.
E. Jean Carroll will testify that what unfolded in a few minutes in a fitting room in 1996 “would change her life forever,” one of her lawyers, Shawn Crowley, said in an opening statement.
“Filled with fear and shame, she kept silent for decades. Eventually, though, silence became impossible,” Crowley said. And when Carroll broke that silence in a 2019 memoir, the then-president “used the most powerful platform on Earth to lie about what he had done, attack Ms. Carroll’s integrity and insult her appearance.”
Trump — who wasn’t in court but hasn’t ruled out testifying —- has called Carroll a “nut job” who fabricated the rape claim to sell her book. Defense attorney Joe Tacopina told jurors Tuesday that her story was wildly implausible and short of evidence.
He accused her of pursuing the case for money, status and political reasons, urging the jurors from heavily Democratic New York to put aside any animus they themselves might hold toward the Republican ex-president and ex-New Yorker.
“You can hate Donald Trump. That’s OK. But there’s a time and a secret place for that. It’s called a ballot box in an election. It’s not here in a court of law,” Tacopina told the six-man, three-woman panel. “Nobody’s above the law, but no one is beneath it.”
The trial stands to test Trump’s “Teflon Don” reputation for shaking off serious legal problems and to reprise accounts of the type of sexual misconduct that rocked his 2016 presidential campaign as he seeks office again. Trump denies all the claims, saying they are falsehoods spun up to damage him.
The trial comes a month after he pleaded not guilty in an unrelated criminal case surrounding payments made to bury accounts of alleged extramarital sex.
Carroll’s suit is a civil case, meaning that no matter the outcome, Trump isn’t in danger of going to jail. She is seeking unspecified monetary damages and a retraction of Trump statements that she alleges were defamatory.
Among his comments: “She’s not my type,” which her lawyers say was tantamount to calling her too unattractive to assault.
Jurors — whose names are being kept secret to prevent potential harassment — range in age from 26 to 66 and include a janitor, a physical therapist and people who work in security, health care collections, a library, a high school and other settings.
They were questioned about their news-watching habits (which vary from watching “everything” to ignoring it all), political donations and support for any of a roster of right- and left-wing groups. They were asked, too, whether they used Trump’s social media platform, read Carroll’s former Elle magazine column and even if they’d seen Trump’s former reality show “The Apprentice” — and whether any of these and other matters would make it difficult for them to be fair.
Carroll, 79, is expected to testify as soon as Wednesday that a chance encounter with Trump, 76, turned violent, and that he defamed her when responding to the rape allegations.
She says that after she ran into the future president at Manhattan’s Bergdorf Goodman on an unspecified spring Thursday evening in 1996, he invited her to shop with him for a woman’s lingerie gift before they teased one another to try on a bodysuit. Carroll says they ended up alone together in a store dressing room, where Trump pushed her against a wall and raped before she fought him off and fled.
Her suit argues that she was psychologically scarred by the alleged attack, and then subjected to an onslaught of hateful messages and reputational damage when Trump painted her as a liar.
“This case is Ms. Carroll’s chance to clear her name, to pursue justice,” Crowley said.
Tacopina countered that it was “an affront to justice.”
He suggested her account of being violently raped in the Fifth Avenue store, with no one around, was preposterous. Also, Tacopina noted, there was no record that Carroll had any injuries, sought out a doctor or therapist, asked the store about surveillance video or even wrote about the alleged attack in her diary.
“It all comes down to: Do you believe the unbelievable?” he asked in his opening statement.
Jurors are also expected to hear from two other women who say they were sexually assaulted by Trump. The jury will also see the infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump is heard asserting that celebrities can grab women sexually without asking.
Carroll’s allegations normally would be too old to bring to court. But in November, New York state enacted a law allowing for suits over decades-old sexual abuse claims.
The Associated Press typically does not name people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly, as Carroll has done.
Story by Jennifer Peltz and Larry Neumeister