By Jennifer Peltz
Former President Donald Trump's behavior toward women, long a source of flashpoints in his political career, now faces a new level of scrutiny: a trial in a lawsuit accusing him of rape.
Jury selection is set to start Tuesday in the case filed by former advice columnist E. Jean Carroll, who says Trump raped her in a luxury New York department store dressing room in the 1990s.
Trump, who is unlikely to attend the trial, has called the accusations “a complete con job.” Carroll, who is seeking unspecified damages, casts the case as a #MeToo-inspired quest for accountability from the epitome of prominent men.
“I’m filing this lawsuit not just for myself but for every woman in America who has been grabbed, groped, harassed, sexually assaulted and has spoken up and still has been disgraced, shamed or fired,” Carroll said early on.
The lawsuit is putting Trump’s history with women under a microscope as he runs to return to the White House. But if a trial over a rape accusation would be a crisis for most candidates, with Trump, it remains to be seen.
“To the extent that the chaos around Trump is his biggest challenge, this reinforces that narrative,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “The No. 1 thing I hear in focus groups of Republican voters is that they’re tired of the constant drama that comes with Trump.”
Trump's political rise was riddled with criticism of his attitudes and conduct toward women. There were his insulting remarks about onetime Republican rival Carly Fiorina's appearance, his misogynistic comments about former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, his double-down on denigrating a former Miss Universe whom he had pilloried about her weight and more — including, most notoriously, the crass “Access Hollywood” hot-mic recording that nearly derailed his 2016 campaign and elicited rare contrition for what he called "locker room banter.”
Then there were the dozen-plus women, including Carroll, who came forward during his campaign and presidency to accuse him of sexual assault and harassment. He denied all the claims. Other lawsuits over them were dropped or dismissed, but Carroll's has endured.
If Trump prevails in the case, he will likely tout it as another example of him beating what he sees as spurious claims about him, Conant said. If Trump loses, the impact could depend on the circumstances of the judgment. Carroll is seeking unspecified damages and a retraction of Trump’s denials of her allegations.
Trump has aimed to use his other legal troubles — including a recent, unrelated indictment and ongoing investigations into other matters — to bolster his support among fellow Republicans, painting the various probes as a politically motivated “witch hunt" and a broad attempt to “interfere” with the 2024 election. It’s unclear whether the voters he seeks to reach will sympathize with his portrayal of Carroll’s lawsuit as a pile-on, see it as a growing distraction or ignore it altogether.
His campaign saw a spike in donations after his indictment, which accuses him of fudging his company’s records to try to conceal payments made to suppress stories about his alleged marital infidelity; he denies the charges and the sexual encounters.
His favorability ratings have held steady at 34% among U.S. adults overall and 68% among Republicans, according to a recent poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Beyond its political ramifications, the trial marks a #MeToo milestone, even after closely watched civil and criminal cases against disgraced movie honcho Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men. The case also is drawing national attention to a New York law that allows for lawsuits over decades-old sex crime claims.
The time frame for pursuing criminal charges over the allegations, which Carroll never reported to police, has long since passed. If she prevails in the lawsuit, it could cost Trump money but not his freedom.
A former magazine journalist, talk show host and “Saturday Night Live” writer, Carroll was best known — at least until her lawsuit — for the eponymous advice column she wrote for Elle magazine from 1993 through 2019.
According to Carroll, she crossed paths with Trump at Bergdorf Goodman sometime in 1995 or 1996, when he was a real estate mogul and man about town. Recognizing her as “that advice lady,” he asked her to help him browse for a women's gift, bantered with Carroll about a bodysuit and steered her to a fitting room, she says. Then, in her telling, he suddenly forced himself on her while she tried to push him off.
“That rape changed my life, which is shocking for me to now understand,” she said in a deposition, a legal term for pretrial questioning under oath.
According to Carroll, she immediately lost interest in dating and desire, then lost her job after she told her story in a 2019 memoir and Trump responded that she was “totally lying.” Elle has said her contract wasn't renewed for unrelated reasons.
Trump says he never encountered Carroll at Bergdorf Goodman and had no idea who she was when she publicly accused him. He has asserted that she invented the story to sell her book.
“It’s a false accusation. Never happened, never would happen,” he said during a caustic 5 1/2-hour deposition, which can be played for jurors.
In snippets released to date, he called Carroll a “nut job,” her attorney “a disgrace” and the case “a big, fat hoax.” He reiterated his description of Carroll as “not my type" — and misidentified her in a 1987 photo as Marla Maples, his wife from 1993 to 1999.
Besides Carroll, two Trump accusers who never sued are set to testify in Carroll’s case.
Jessica Leeds has said Trump grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt when they were seatmates on a flight three decades ago. People magazine writer Natasha Stoynoff has said Trump forcibly kissed her against her will while showing her around his Florida home for a 2005 article.
Jurors also are expected to hear the “Access Hollywood” recording.
The Associated Press does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly.
The trial will unfold at a federal courthouse a block from the state court where Trump was arraigned earlier this month on his indictment.
Associated Press writer Michelle Price contributed to this report.