(Bloomberg) — Accusations that Donald Trump sexually assaulted women were supposed to sink his campaign in 2016. They didn’t. Now, those claims will be put to the test in court just as the former president is ramping up another run for the White House.
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The trial of a civil suit by New York author E. Jean Carroll, who claims Trump raped her in the 1990s, started Tuesday in Manhattan with jury selection and opening statements. It has familiar themes from Trump’s first campaign for office, including testimony by two other women who claim he sexually assaulted them and audio from the so-called Access Hollywood tape of the real estate mogul and reality TV star discussing how easy it was for famous men to grope women without consent.
Despite being twice impeached while in office, criminal charges over alleged hush-money payments to a porn star, and an ongoing government probe of his role in the 2021 attack on the US Capitol, Trump is leading in early polls of Republican voters.
But the civil trial marks the first time Trump is facing a jury over Carroll’s claim that he assaulted her in a dressing room of the Bergdorf Goodman department store decades ago. She went public in 2019, and alleges Trump defamed her by saying on social media that her case is a “hoax and a lie.”
The trial is so politically charged that US District Judge Lewis Kaplan, citing Trump’s history of disparaging people affiliated with his legal disputes, decided in March to shield the identities of jurors to protect their privacy and safety — a procedure normally used in cases involving organized crime or terrorism.
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Trump attorney Joe Tacopina told jurors in his opening statement that the evidence would show his client didn’t attack Carroll or defame her by denying her allegations. He urged them to reject as unbelievable Carroll’s claim that she was lured into a dressing room by Trump, and said everyone deserves to be treated fairly “regardless of his name.”
“It’s OK to feel however you feel — You can hate Donald Trump,” Tacopina said. “But there’s a secret time and a place for that. It’s called the ballot box during an election, not here in the court of law.”
Carroll lawyer Shawn Crowley told jurors there would be more than enough evidence to find Trump liable, including the testimony of Carroll’s friends who say she confided in them after the attack. Experts also will explain how its common for victims to keep attacks to themselves for decades, Crowley said.
The guilt and embarrassment “tormented Ms. Carroll,” her lawyer said. “How could she share with the world that she had been dumb enough to go into a dressing room with Donald Trump? How could she describe what he’d done to her. For many years, she couldn’t.”
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On Monday night, Kaplan barred Trump from submitting evidence about Carroll’s past sex life that would violate court rules to protect victims.
The judge on Tuesday reiterated his request that the parties “refrain from making any statements that will incite violence or civil unrest.” Kaplan said his concern was mainly “with respect to the safety and privacy of the jury.” He said he wasn’t implying that anyone had done anything wrong “with respect to this trial” but that he wanted to give a warning now “to avoid problems.”
The trial is expected to last five to 10 days. If the jury finds Trump liable over Carroll’s civil battery and defamation claims, it will then decide on the amount of the damages. Carroll hasn’t said how much she is seeking, but such cases can involve awards for millions of dollars.
Carroll, 79, has said she will take the stand to describe the alleged attack by Trump and the impact it had on her life. Her testimony, which could occur as soon as Tuesday, will give jurors a first-hand account of events in the dispute, but also opens her to cross-examination by Trump’s lawyers.
Trump, 76, hasn’t said whether he’ll testify during the trial or even attend the proceedings. Defendants in such cases aren’t required to show up, and his legal team says he may skip it to spare the city and the court from any disruption caused by his presence.
Test of New Law
The trial is a major test for the New York Adult Survivors Act, a new state law that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations on civil sexual assault claims even if they are decades old. Carroll sued Trump under the law on Nov. 24, 2021 — the day it took effect.
“It will ultimately be up to the jury to determine whose account is more credible,” said Elizabeth Geddes, a former federal prosecutor in New York who helped convict R&B singer R Kelly for sex trafficking last year. “It will be irrelevant that he was president and he’s seeking another term — he’s just going to be a defendant in the courtroom.”
Among those set to testify are two women who accused Trump of sexual misconduct before the 2016 election — part of Carroll’s strategy to show a pattern of alleged behavior by Trump. Jessica Leeds claims Trump groped her when they sat next to each other on a flight three decades ago, and Natasha Stoynoff alleges he attacked her at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida when she was interviewing him for People magazine in 2005.
The two women “will testify that Donald Trump assaulted them in very much the same way he assaulted Ms. Carroll, because that is his M.O.,” according to Crowley.
Access Hollywood Tape
Jurors also will hear the 2005 Access Hollywood tape, the hot-mic recording of Trump making unguarded remarks to host Billy Bush about his effort to have sex with a married woman, as well as comments about famous men being allowed to grope women without consent and get away with it.
Read More: Trump ‘Access Hollywood’ Tape Can Be Played at Carroll Trial
While Trump may not take the stand, he did provide sworn testimony during a deposition in October at Mar-a-Lago and video excerpts may be played during the trial by Carroll’s lawyer, Roberta Kaplan.
During his deposition, Trump defended his hot-mic remarks by saying it’s “historically” true that stars “can do anything.”
“And you consider yourself to be a star?” Carroll’s lawyer asked him.
“I think you can say that, yeah,” Trump said.
Not His ‘Type’
Trump insisted he’d never met Carroll and repeatedly said her claims must be false because she isn’t his “type.” During his deposition, Trump was presented with a photo of him talking to Carroll at a social event in the 1980s. He mistakenly said it was an image of him with his ex-wife Marla Maples.
Carroll, a journalist and former Elle magazine advice columnist, alleges she was raped after she ran into Trump while shopping and began browsing with him in the lingerie area of the department store. She says they had met socially on at least one prior occasion and that they browsed and chatted for a period of time before jokingly going to the dressing room to try something on. That’s when he lunged at her and began the alleged assault, she claims.
Carroll says she didn’t go public earlier because she didn’t think anyone would believe her, and that Trump would use his fame and power to destroy her.
In his decision to keep the names of jurors hidden from both sides in the case, the judge cited Trump’s call for his supporters to protest before his arrest in the Manhattan criminal case and urging them to “take our country back.”
‘Incitement to Violence’
“That reaction reportedly has been perceived by some as incitement to violence,” the judge wrote. “And it bears mention that Mr. Trump repeatedly has attacked courts, judges, various law enforcement officials and other public officials, and even individual jurors in other matters.”
Earlier this month, Trump pleaded not guilty in an unrelated criminal prosecution brought by the Manhattan district attorney. In that case, the former president is accused of facilitating hush-money payments to a porn star to keep her quiet about an alleged affair before the 2016 election. Trump argues that both cases are part of a political “witch hunt” against him.
Last week, the former president pointed to outside funding for Carroll’s case by a major Democratic Party donor and Trump detractor as evidence that the case is politically motived. Carroll’s lawyer argued funding by Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, is no different than Trump using money donated by his supporters to pay for his lawyers.
The case is Carroll v. Trump, 22-cv-10016, US District Court for the Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
(Updates with opening arguments from lawyers for Carroll and Trump.)
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