By Larry Neumeister and Jennifer Peltz
A former advice columnist’s nearly 30-year-old rape claim against Donald Trump went to trial Tuesday as jurors in the federal civil case heard her allegation of being attacked in a luxury department store dressing room. The former president says nothing happened between them.
E. Jean Carroll will testify that the assault that happened in a few minutes in a fitting room in 1996 “would change her life forever,” one of her lawyers, Shawn Crowley, said in an opening statement.
“Filled with fear and shame, she kept silent for decades. Eventually, though, silence became impossible,” Crowley said. And when Carroll broke that silence in a 2019 memoir, the then-president “used the most powerful platform on Earth to lie about what he had done, attack Ms. Carroll’s integrity and insult her appearance.”
Trump wasn't in court, and his lawyers haven’t yet previewed their case for the six-man, three-woman jury.
The trial stands to tests Trump's “Teflon Don” reputation for shaking off serious legal problems and to reprise accounts of the type of sexual misconduct that rocked his 2016 presidential campaign as he seeks office again. He denies Carroll’s claim and all the others, saying they were falsehoods spun up to damage him.
The trial is in civil court, meaning that no matter the outcome, Trump isn't in danger of going to jail. He isn't required to be in court, either, and his lawyers have indicated he most likely won't testify.
The trial comes a month after he pleaded not guilty in an unrelated criminal case surrounding payments made to bury accounts of alleged extramarital sex.
Jurors — whose names are being kept secret to prevent potential harassment — range in age from 26 to 66 and include a janitor, a physical therapist and people who work in security, health care collections, a library, a high school and other settings. One said she follows news by watching “everything”; another said he didn’t follow it at all.
They were questioned about their news-watching habits, political donations and support for any of a roster of right- and left-wing groups. They were asked, too, whether they used Trump’s social media platform, read Carroll’s former Elle magazine column and even if they’d seen Trump’s former reality show “The Apprentice” — and whether any of these and other matters would make it difficult for them to be fair.
Carroll is expected to testify that a chance encounter with Trump turned violent, and that he defamed her when responding to the rape allegations. She's seeking unspecified damages and a retraction.
She says that after she ran into the future president at Manhattan's Bergdorf Goodman on a spring evening in 1996, he invited her to shop with him for a woman's lingerie gift before they teased one another to try on a garment. Carroll says they ended up alone together in a store dressing room, where Trump pushed her against a wall and raped before she fought him off and fled.
Since Carroll first made her accusations, Trump has vehemently denied that a rape ever occurred or that he even knew Carroll.
Trump has labeled Carroll a “nut job” and “mentally sick.” He claimed she fabricated the rape claim to boost sales of her book.
“She’s not my type,” he has said repeatedly, although during sworn questioning in October, he also misidentified her in a photograph as his ex-wife Marla Maples.
Carroll didn't stop to speak with reporters as she arrived at the courthouse Tuesday morning.
Jurors are also expected to hear from two other women who say they were sexually assaulted by Trump.
Jessica Leeds is set to testify that Trump tried to put his hand up her skirt on a 1979 flight on which the two were assigned neighboring seats. Natasha Stoynoff, a former People magazine staff writer, will testify that Trump pinned her against a wall and forcibly kissed her at his Florida mansion when she went there in 2005 to interview Trump and his then-pregnant wife Melania Trump.
Jurors will also see the infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump is heard making misogynistic remarks about women, including an assertion that celebrities can grab, even sexually, women without asking.
Carroll's allegations normally would be too old to bring to court. But in November, New York state enacted a law allowing for suits over decades-old sexual abuse claims.
U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who will preside over the trial, rejected a request by Trump's lawyers that jurors be told that the ex-president wanted to spare the city the disruption his presence might cause.
Trump could still decide to attend the trial and testify. If he does not, the jury might be shown excerpts from his deposition, which was recorded on video.
The Associated Press typically does not name people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly, as Carroll, Leeds and Stoynoff have done.
UPDATES: with opening statement by Carroll's lawyer.