With the $5 million verdict against Donald Trump for sexual abuse and defamation in the E. Jean Carroll trial, the #MeToo movement comes full circle.
Trump’s election in 2016, after he’d been heard boasting of sexual assault on the “Access Hollywood” tape and accused of sexual assault by more than a dozen women, set off a tsunami of female fury. That fury powered the Women’s March. It inspired countless women — some of them previously apolitical suburbanites — to put their lives on hold and throw themselves into activism or to run for office themselves. And that fury, that intolerable sense of incredulous disgust and civic violation, was the spark that set off the #MeToo movement, as women, unable to do anything about the abuser running the country, turned their energy toward those in their own institutions, including the entertainment industry. I’ve long been convinced that Trump was the reason revelations about Harvey Weinstein led to a nationwide paroxysm.
The #MeToo movement is why E. Jean Carroll wrote the memoir in which she revealed that Trump violated her in a Bergdorf Goodman changing room in the mid-1990s. “As the riotous, sickening stories of #MeToo surged across the country, I, like many women, could not help but be reminded of certain men in my own life,” she wrote. The movement is the reason that in 2022, New York passed the Adult Survivors Act, which created a window during which sexual assault survivors could sue their attackers even beyond the statute of limitations. (The movement is also the reason the bill was signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul, not a disgraced Andrew Cuomo.)
Carroll’s lawsuit was one of the first filed under the Adult Survivors Act. And because of her perseverance, Trump will, for the first time, face legal accountability for his treatment of women. Because of the #MeToo movement, the man who started it all gets some measure of comeuppance.
The trial itself was a test of how much #MeToo has changed the culture. Carroll’s lawyers asked a jury of six men and three women to understand why someone who’d suffered sexual abuse might keep quiet for decades, why she might not remember the date the assault happened and why her trauma might not manifest in predictable, easily legible ways.
Trump’s lawyer Joseph Tacopina, on the other hand, tried the case as if #MeToo hadn’t happened. He badgered Carroll about why she hadn’t screamed, why she hadn’t called the police, why she hadn’t gone to the hospital. He asked Jessica Leeds, who testified that Trump had groped her on an airplane, whether she ever recalled “telling the man to stop or say no or anything like that?”
I spent a few days in the courtroom, and honestly, I worried that this retro tack might work with a couple of the jurors. One of them, a 31-year-old security guard, had said he got his information mainly from podcasts like the one hosted by far-right figure Tim Pool, whom Trump invited to the White House in 2019. But clearly, the jurors did not find the Trump team’s defense, such as it was, persuasive, since it took them only a few hours to decide against him.
Yes, it’s odd that the jury found Trump liable for sexual abuse but not rape, which is what Carroll accused him of, and Trump’s defenders may cling to that as a fig leaf of exoneration. But what matters is that for the first time, a court has affirmed what the women who reacted with stunned horror to Trump’s election have always understood. He’s not just a misogynist. He’s a predator.
I’m not naïve enough to think that Republicans will now stampede away from Trump. “I’d rather have a president that isn’t found liable for battery,” Senator Kevin Cramer, a Republican, told reporters, but “it’s not a disqualifier.” Had the case gone the other way, however, it would have been a great boon to Trump, burnishing his reputation for impunity. Instead, it’s a reminder that there’s a legal onslaught coming at him and it can’t be deflected with lies, bluster and wishful thinking. Trump’s election made it seem that the allegations of so many women were unimportant. Carroll forced it all to matter. I only hope his other antagonists are as valiant.
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