Nine New York Jurors Saw Trump for Who He Really Is
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Eighty-three million, three hundred thousand dollars. When a New York jury awarded that amount to E. Jean Carroll on Friday in her defamation action against former President Donald Trump, I was awestruck.
Now, as a lawyer, I had thought a fair verdict could range anywhere from $75 to $100 million—or even more. Carroll had already obtained a $5 million verdict in a trial just last year, an amount comprising roughly $2 million for his having sexually abused Carroll in 1996, and roughly $3 million for his having defamed her in 2022, after he (unwillingly) left office.
This trial, the second trial, was held to determine what damages she had suffered when he defamed her in 2019, when Carroll first told the world how Trump had assaulted her. It stood to reason that the damages for that slander would be much greater—after all, that had been the first time he’d lied about her, and, importantly, his status as president had compounded the impact of those lies. On top of all that, he continued to lie about her, over and over again, even during this second trial—displaying a maliciousness that could justify punitive damages several times higher than the amount quantifying her actual harm.
So on a professional level, I wasn’t surprised. But on a personal one, I felt overwhelmed. Nine regular people in New York, picked at random, meted out justice to a man who had been president of the United States, a man who claims to have billions of dollars.
They showed that the justice system still works in America. Donald J. Trump can’t do whatever he wants with impunity. He is not above the law.
I’m not ashamed to say tears welled up in my eyes. I watched the television coverage silently. My phone buzzed and beeped, and instead of answering, I turned it off. I took a walk to compose myself.
As I strolled, my mind went back to a hot Monday night in New York City in July 2019, when I had attended a small dinner party at the home of my friend Molly Jong-Fast. Many interesting people were in attendance, and among them was one I had never met. She was an older woman, tall, elegant, with closely cropped hair, somewhere in her late 60s, I would have guessed. But despite never having met her, I knew who she was.
She was E. Jean Carroll. Three weeks before, New York magazine had published an excerpt of a book she had written about the bad men she had met in her life. One was Donald Trump. She said he had raped her in a department-store dressing room in 1996. Trump denied the allegation, accusing her of lying, and, with classic Trumpian mendacity, claimed never to have met her—even though the New York piece included a photograph showing them together at a Saturday Night Live after-party in the ’90s. Trump added that he would never have raped her—not because he would never rape anyone but because she “was not my type.” A few days later, The New York Times posted a taped interview with two upstanding friends of Carroll’s, to whom she had described the sexual assault almost immediately after it had happened.
I had little doubt she was telling the truth. It’s never easy—sometimes it’s impossible—to determine precisely what happened between two people alone in a room. But as we’ve learned during the #MeToo era, when you have a man with a long history of facing sexual-abuse allegations and a woman who contemporaneously told her story to others, you can have a pretty high degree of confidence that the victim is telling the truth.
And now there she was, standing before me. Carroll knew who I was, because of a recent article I had written about her, arguing for her credibility, in The Washington Post. We exchanged greetings. I praised her for her courage in speaking out. She thanked me for my article. She then told me that some people had suggested she sue Donald Trump. My response was immediate: “You have a case.”
I argued that she had a simple, straightforward claim for defamation. She said he had raped her, lied about it, and, in doing so, lied about her—calling her a lunatic and a liar to all the world. That’s defamation—period. I thought to myself, Who should represent her? And that answer, too, came to me in a flash. I told her I knew a fabulous lawyer who might consider doing it. I didn’t tell her who. The conversation was over in just a couple of minutes.
Early the next morning I texted, then called, the lawyer I had in mind, Roberta “Robbie” Kaplan, an outstanding litigator who had become a good friend. Robbie was already famous for having won Windsor v. United States, the landmark Supreme Court case that in 2013 struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. Would you be willing to talk to Carroll? I asked her. She said yes. And so at 8:47 a.m. on Tuesday morning, July 16, 2019, I dashed off an email to Carroll and Kaplan. It contained just two sentences: “Jean and Robbie—I’m putting you together on this email so that you can get in touch. Best regards to you both. g.”
Four and a half years later, when I saw the news of the verdict, I couldn’t get these moments out of my mind. I spent 30 years as a litigator, and I had never become as emotionally invested in a litigation as I did with this one, in which my only contribution was a single short email. And that’s not just because I represented mostly corporations in my practice. It was because this case, more than any I had ever seen, involved justice.
Friends and journalists were messaging me. What did I think? It seemed to me that to talk about the law of defamation, punitive damages, even immediate political impact, almost diminished the meaning of the verdict. Because this case was one act in a morality play of immense significance, involving not just one man—but an entire nation. A larger drama about right and wrong. About truth and lies. About justice and injustice.
And then there is the verdict in the bigger sense of the word—not the dollar amount but the judgment passed on the man, Donald Trump. As Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, the presiding judge in the trials, said in open court, Trump is somebody who “just can’t control” himself. And as I have previously written, he can’t control himself because he’s a deeply disturbed human being. He’s a man who has shown no sign of a conscience, indicated no empathy, given no expression of remorse.
Those of us who have watched him closely for many years know this. But many Americans don’t. They go about their busy lives, and they get little dribs and drabs about politics in a variety of different ways. They see politics as messy—which it certainly is—and find sorting out lies from truth difficult. This has always given Trump an advantage. Some in the media have inadvertently normalized him—not because they think he’s normal, but because they instinctively try to describe events and people in familiar terms. And since January 20, 2021, he’s had yet another advantage: People haven’t seen as much of him as they once did.
But the jurors—in both this trial and the earlier one—got to see Donald Trump, up close and personally. Through their own eyes, throughout these trials, they got to see how Trump had nothing but contempt for the woman who accused him of rape, and whom he had defamed so many times. They saw, just a few feet away, how he had nothing but scorn for the court, the judge, the law—and, by extension, the jury and each and every one of us. They saw that Donald Trump is a man who must be held to account if simple decency and justice are to be upheld.
The verdict tells us a lot about the nation, as well. We live in an age when political tribalism, for so many, has overcome their understanding of right and wrong, of fact and fantasy, and of reason and unreason. Too many Americans support Trump, not because he deserves their support, but because they want to support him, because they consider themselves members of one team against another, or because they’ve done so in the past and don’t want to admit error.
And so they pretend that he is not who he is. A lot of these people don’t know any better, because they’ve walled themselves off from reality, changing the channel whenever they begin to hear things they don’t want to hear.
But in the upper reaches of our nation’s political system, many of his supporters and enablers do know better. They know who Trump is. They talk about who he is behind closed doors. Recall, for example, that, as reported by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, one of Trump’s chiefs of staff purchased and relied upon a remarkable book, a compendium of essays from psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental-health professionals describing Trump’s warped psyche and explaining its danger to the nation. Many others have now come forward to acknowledge his moral and psychological deficiencies; even Jenna Ellis, the disgraced lawyer who once devoted herself to Trump, has now publicly described him as a “malignant narcissist.”
But too many elites still won’t tell the truth. When somebody asks them to go on the record about it, they still say things like “no comment,” or “l didn’t see the tweet,” or “I haven’t followed the case”—or change the subject to something else. And they’re all lying and dissembling—to protect the worst liar of all. But it’s long past time for these people to admit what can’t be denied: that they’ve been covering up for a pathological liar, a sexual predator, a man who would put himself over everyone and everything else, including the nation and its Constitution and laws. That he is a man who does not deserve to hold any office of public trust, let alone the highest office in the land.
Some things rise above politics. The challenge posed by Donald Trump is about right and wrong. Everyone needs to look at it that way. And that’s just what the jury did.
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