After the case E. Jean Carroll’s team brought against Donald Trump these last few weeks, it would have been preposterous for the jury to arrive at any verdict other than the one it did on Tuesday. Jurors found Trump liable for both of Carroll’s claims, battery and defamation, and fined him $5 million in damages.
Over the course of two weeks, jurors heard devastating testimony from Carroll, as well as from two other women who said Trump had forced himself on them in years past. They watched a deposition tape in which Trump mistook a photo of Carroll for one of his ex-wife, appeared to glorify sexual assault, and mocked the appearance of Carroll’s female attorney. Meanwhile, Trump’s lawyer angered the judge with his aggressive cross-examination of Carroll and was given a stern warning regarding Trump’s outbursts about the case on social media. The defendant himself never even bothered to show up in court.
At the center of the trial was a ludicrous question: Who was lying about the encounter, Trump or Carroll? Who cut a more credible figure, the guy who uttered an average of 21 falsehoods per day as president, or the former advice columnist who’d had her life upended and Trump’s rabid fanbase turned against her as a result of the case?
But still, juries are unpredictable. Nine people were on this one, six of them men, all bringing their own potential hang-ups and histories to the process. It took them less than two and a half hours to come to a unanimous decision.
Trump was the liar, the jurors said. The burden of proof in a civil trial is “preponderance of the evidence”—a lower standard than “beyond a reasonable doubt”—which means the jury found that, more likely than not, Trump had done what Carroll said he did: sexually assault her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the mid-1990s. (Carroll had accused him of rape, and the jury only found him liable for sexual abuse. Nonetheless, the bulk of the accusation stands.)
The jury decided Trump should pay $5 million in damages for abusing and defaming Carroll. But the forced payout, which will undoubtedly enrage the former president, is just one part of the upshot of this trial. The other is that, for the first time ever, in the legal record, Trump has been found responsible for a sexual assault.
Trump’s inveterate mistreatment of women has been a robust component of his public persona. For his fans, it was a bracing rejoinder to a perceived rise in the social and political power of women; it felt good to think of him unapologetically demeaning women, or worse, and getting away with it. For his critics, it seemed to be the only thing that could tank his presidential campaign, until that sickening moment on election night in 2016 when they realized it wasn’t.
Throughout Trump’s time in the White House, it became less of a focus. Of course it did: With the power of the presidency, he was able to do much greater harm to a much greater number of people, so his past transgressions—the alleged assaults and forced kisses and deliberate walking in on half-dressed beauty pageant contestants—were no longer pressing news. They had made headlines and prompted a furious outcry when they were first revealed, but then Republicans stood by or came around to Trump anyway, so what could be done about them? No use continuing to harp on something outrageous when one’s outrage falls straight into the void.
For years, it seemed like there would be no holding Trump to account for any of the alleged misdeeds he had perpetrated against the women unlucky enough to find themselves in his path. And then E. Jean Carroll filed her suits. First for defamation—the rare case in which telling a lie is a legally actionable offense—and then for battery, under a new New York law that allowed survivors of sexual violence a one-year window to bring claims in old cases whose statutes of limitations had expired.
When the lawsuits went to trial, Carroll’s attorneys had the jury consider not just her allegation, but additional evidence that established a pattern of Trump’s behavior. The Access Hollywood tape, that enduring symbol of Trump’s misogyny and impunity, became evidence against him, as did the testimonies of Natasha Stoynoff and Jessica Leeds, who alleged that Trump touched and kissed them without their consent in encounters that took place three decades apart. In this way, the trial grew to be about more than Carroll’s story. It became a broader evaluation of the way Trump has treated and talked about women, an assessment of his credibility and character that allowed multiple alleged misdeeds to catch up to him.
Now, after the jury verdict, Carroll’s story is no longer just a story. It has been processed through the system our society has developed and agreed upon to adjudicate claims of wrongdoing, and it has been deemed credible. There is a new certainty to the language we can use about it, and, by extension, about Trump. He has been found liable for this sexual assault and for lying about it in a way that caused harm to Carroll. It is a permanent, official conclusion that will follow him for the rest of his life. It gives us fresh clarity on the depravity of those who defend and honor him.
But, accustomed to watching purported dings to Trump’s reputation do absolutely nothing to dim his appeal, those who oppose Trump are now asking, “Will it matter?”
The answer is complicated, and probably unsatisfying. We know that Trump’s career will not suffer much, if at all, for this. Republicans are already lining up to decry the verdict; CNN promptly gave him free airtime in what amounted to a nationally televised Trump rally performed for an adoring audience, during which he smeared Carroll yet again (opening himself up to a further defamation suit). And even if Trump somehow fades from U.S. politics, the ruinous agenda he represents—the assault on free and fair and binding elections, the weakening of the rule of law, the further radicalization of the Republican Party, the political violence, the resurgent white nationalist element in mainstream American life—will march on.
But those are not the problems this lawsuit set out to solve. Nor did Carroll intend to wipe Trump from our national consciousness—she merely wanted to have her day in court, to hold him accountable by setting in the record that he did what she said he did. It was a humble yet honorable goal, based more in basic principles of right and wrong than in any hope of true retribution. (How can one put a price, $5 million or otherwise, on the trauma of a sexual assault and a concerted defamation campaign?)
Doing something for the principle of the thing can sound pathetic, like you’re hammering away at a wall you stand no chance of breaking, performing a pointless task just to make yourself feel better. Because what are principles, anyway, but feelings—or hopes, if you’d rather, goals we know we’ll never reach?
But if Trump’s rise to power and brutal wielding of it has taught us anything, it’s that American principles are a lot more fragile and discardable than we’d like to believe. It is always worth the effort to actualize them. Here are the principles reified by the verdict in the E. Jean Carroll case: Sexual assault is a despicable violation. Harming people has consequences. No one should be too famous or influential to reap those consequences. Lying is wrong.
It may seem like a paltry response to everything Trump and his peers have done to women and girls in recent years: deny them possession of their own bodies, consign them to subpar medical care and its attendant physical suffering, ban them from sports teams and school bathrooms, assault them and mock them to laughing crowds. But the Carroll verdict is a reminder of the values a society should aspire to, the moral ideals we are still capable of occasionally achieving. Carroll saw the way Trump had skated around other allegations of sexual assault, degraded his accusers, and maintained good standing in a major U.S. political party. She was not deterred, but determined, to wrest one set of truths from his mountain of lies. This week, with the affirmation of a jury of her peers, she did.