Jurisprudence

He Said, She Sued

E. Jean Carroll takes the veracity of her sexual assault claim against Donald Trump to court.

E. Jean Carroll on July 11 in New York.
E. Jean Carroll on July 11 in New York.
Noam Galai/Getty Images

E. Jean Carroll, the advice columnist who recently accused Donald Trump of raping her, sued the president for defamation on Monday. After Carroll alleged in June that Trump assaulted her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in late 1995 or early 1996, Trump insisted that he’d never met Carroll, that she wasn’t his “type,” and that she had fabricated the story to sell copies of her just-published book.

These were lies that “smeared her integrity, honesty, and dignity” in national media, according to Carroll’s new complaint.

“Nobody in this nation is above the law,” the complaint begins. “Nobody is entitled to conceal acts of sexual assault behind a wall of defamatory falsehoods and deflections. The rape of a woman is a violent crime; compounding that crime with acts of malicious libel is abhorrent.”

This language marks a shift in the way Carroll has described the alleged assault. When she first published her accusation in an excerpt from her memoir, she refused to call the incident a rape, even though she says Trump pinned her against a wall and penetrated her with his penis before she was able to get away. In an interview with Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Virginia Heffernan in June, Carroll said that if she’d heard what happened to her happened to someone else, she’d call it rape, but she didn’t want to apply that term to her own assault. “I hate it when people tell me in their opinion that I was raped,” Carroll said. “Because I see it as a fight. This way I can hold my head up, and I can respect myself because I knew I fought. It’s just my way of taking care of myself.”

That impulse toward self-preservation also played into Carroll’s decision not to file a police report or take legal action against Trump at the time. “I didn’t see it as a crime. I saw it as my mistake,” she told Heffernan and Lithwick, explaining that she’d felt complicit in her own assault because she’d been flirting with Trump before the alleged rape. The complaint Carroll filed in New York on Monday devotes several pages to the many other reasons why she didn’t report the alleged rape in the ’90s or before Trump’s election: She didn’t think she’d be believed; she worried that Trump would “bury her in threats and lawsuits,” ruining her reputation and career as a columnist; and by 2016, she’d become convinced that every public allegation of Trump’s misogyny and sexual violence only made supporters admire his power and macho posturing even more.

Now, Carroll is framing her legal action as a public service. “I am filing this on behalf of every woman who has ever been harassed, assaulted, silenced, or spoken up only to be shamed, fired, ridiculed, and belittled,” Carroll said in a statement to the Washington Post. Her complaint states that she’s suing the president in part “to demonstrate that even a man as powerful as Trump can be held accountable under the law.” Carroll wasn’t willing to call her alleged assault rape when it seemed like a personal story whose consequences and implications were limited to her own life. But now that Trump has contested it in the public record, she has chosen to try make him answer for it.

A defamation suit is one of the few ways Carroll could bring her case before a court of law. Though New York recently extended its statute of limitations for third-degree rape—the violation Trump allegedly committed, based on Carroll’s description of the incident—from five years to 10, Carroll’s account still falls outside of it. But it’s only been a few months since Trump made the statements Carroll says defamed her.

To prove Trump’s remarks were defamatory, Carroll will have to prove that he lied when he said he didn’t rape her. That would force a judge or jury to consider whether the evidence supports her claim that Trump raped her.

Because of the court-backed fact-finding they require, defamation suits can be useful means of bringing out information in cases where prosecutors have been unwilling or unable to file charges. Unsealed documents from a 2015 defamation case against Jeffrey Epstein’s associate Ghislaine Maxwell revealed new details about the abuse Virginia Giuffre says she suffered at the hands of Epstein and Maxwell. Last month, documents Trump provided in the proceedings for the defamation suit filed against him by Summer Zervos, an Apprentice contestant who claims Trump sexually assaulted her in 2007, helped substantiate parts of her story. For example: According to Zervos’ lawyer, a Trump calendar entry from 2007 shows him staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel on Dec. 21, matching the location and date of the alleged assault Zervos has described.

Such morsels of corroboration won’t necessarily convince Trump’s fan base or his supporters in the Republican Party that the assault allegations are true, or that a person who routinely abuses women should not be president. It’s hard to imagine any bit of information that would repel Trump’s die-hard 40-or-so percent. Carroll knew, when she published her account of rape, that it probably wouldn’t make any measurable difference in Trump’s ability to hang on to the presidency.

Telling it anyway, and filing a defamation suit with the full knowledge that the president’s smears will only escalate in response, makes a powerful statement against a system that lets men buy and bluster their way out of justice. Every time a person in power evades accountability for crimes, future victims see one less reason to take the risk of filing a report or making a public statement. Future perpetrators learn they can get away with abominable violations. Impunity begets impunity.

Carroll is asking for unspecified damages, both punitive and compensatory. She says she received 50 percent fewer letters to her advice column in the months since Trump called her a liar. It’s a practical claim, and she may get the money she seeks. But her suit also serves as an act of protest. Trump responded to her story the way he responds to any accusation or bad news or criticism: by trying to bury it in his own eruption of unreality, dismissing whoever says something unfavorable to him as a liar or a traitor or a loser. She’s not just defying Trump’s threats after years of anticipating them, she’s defying his whole vision of how the world works. The truth matters, her suit says, even if it doesn’t matter to Trump.