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Trump might finally be held accountable in a court of law

And if it happens, the hero won't be a prosecutor or a politician. Instead, the woman of the hour would be writer E. Jean Carroll.


As a lawyer-turned-journalist, the question I get asked most outside of work is, “Will Donald Trump ever be held accountable?” That’s a tough one to answer, in part because the former president has been accused of a wide range of misconduct, including cooking the books of his real estate empire and willfully hoarding classified documents. And, of course, there’s his lowest low: Jan. 6, 2021.

But yes, I think Trump will be held accountable, and as early as next week. It just won’t play out in the way many might have imagined. It won’t be because of the Manhattan district attorney’s indictment, the New York attorney general’s quarter-billion-dollar civil fraud case, or any of the ongoing criminal investigations led by special counsel Jack Smith or Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis.

Don’t get me wrong: Each of those people might succeed in holding Trump legally — or even criminally — accountable one day. But the person most likely to hold Trump to account now is Miss Indiana University 1963, a woman celebrated for dispensing advice to the lovelorn even as she suppressed her own apparent trauma.

Her name is E. Jean Carroll. She is one of at least two dozen women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct. And starting Tuesday, her yearslong fight to make Trump liable for allegedly assaulting and defaming her will be tried in a Manhattan federal court.

Before Trump was president, his reputed extramarital liaisons were not just well known, but were almost part of his "playboy" image — and his unexpected appeal to voters. And when we first saw the “Access Hollywood” tape — in which Trump boasted that as a “star,” he could “do anything” to whomever he wanted — it did not destroy Trump, as some expected. Why? Because many voters chalked it up to Trump being Trump: offensive but not an offender. Carroll, on the other hand, could not.

Instead, the #MeToo movement, sparked by The New York Times’ reporting about Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, prompted Carroll to reflect on all the “hideous men” she had known throughout her life. Ultimately, she wrote a book about her alleged encounters with the 21 worst among them.

Number 20 is Trump. In a now-famous excerpt of the book published in New York Magazine in 2019, Carroll detailed how he allegedly sexually assaulted her in the mid-1990s in a Manhattan department store dressing room before she pushed him “out and off” her and bolted out of the store onto Fifth Avenue. And while she estimated the alleged assault itself lasted “no more than three minutes,” the alleged "blot of the real-estate tycoon,” as she called it, has stayed with her ever since.

But for Trump’s response, Carroll’s revelation might have dominated a news cycle or two before being subsumed in the wave of perpetual Trump scandals. Yet Trump emphatically denied assaulting her, claimed he didn’t even know who she was, and characterized her story as both a political plot and a marketing gambit.

For the casual observer, Trump’s post was nasty, even for Trump. For lawyers, it was jaw-dropping.

So Carroll — who testified she initially had no interest in litigation — sued Trump for defamation in New York state court in November 2019. Months later, as he dragged out discovery, Trump’s Justice Department intervened, transferred the case to federal court, and argued Trump was immune from the suit because he was president at the time of the alleged defamation.

A federal court disagreed — and allowed discovery to continue while Trump appealed. And last October, when Trump failed for a second time to dismiss or pause the case as his deposition neared, he exploded on Truth Social, his flailing social media platform. His rambling, vitriolic post reiterated his core denials: “I don’t know this woman, have no idea who she is ... She completely made up a story...” He added, among other insults: “This woman is not my type!”

For the casual observer, Trump’s post was nasty, even for Trump. For lawyers, it was jaw-dropping. A former president can’t insulate himself from liability for his post-presidential statements; by again calling her story a “hoax,” he unwittingly generated a new defamation claim. And in a further twist, Trump’s efforts to dismiss and delay Carroll’s first lawsuit backfired too. In the new civil lawsuit she brought last November, she not only alleges Trump defamed her through that Truth Social post but she also seeks damages for the alleged rape under a recently enacted New York law that gives some adults who claim they’ve been sexually assaulted more time to sue their alleged abusers.

E. Jean Carroll at her home in New York state on June 21, 2019.
E. Jean Carroll at her home in New York state on June 21, 2019.Eva Deitch for The Washington Post via Getty Images file

That’s the case that goes to trial next week, and so far, Trump is striking out left and right. He lost several of his pretrial motions, including one to dismiss the case and another seeking judgment in his favor on the defamation claim.

Trump got the trial date extended by a week when lawyer Joe Tacopina joined his defense team, but his more recent attempts to postpone the trial for a month or more — including on grounds of “pretrial publicity” stemming from the Manhattan district attorney’s indictment — have been summarily rejected.

And Trump’s expectation of special treatment has fared equally poorly. For example, he asked that the judge tell the jury he is “excused” from attending the trial because of the logistical nightmare his presence would cause New Yorkers and courthouse personnel. But Trump isn’t required to attend a civil trial like this one. He’s also scheduled to attend an April 27 campaign event in New Hampshire, where law enforcement is arguably less equipped to handle his visit than the combined forces of the New York Police Department, Secret Service, and U.S. Marshals, who guard the federal courthouse.

That Trump’s lawyers are dissipating the court’s goodwill is clear from the judge’s recent orders.

As of Monday morning, it was still not known whether Trump would attend any part of the trial, despite a court order requiring each party to provide that information by last Thursday.

That Trump’s lawyers are dissipating the court’s goodwill is clear from the judge’s recent orders. Of course, jurors won’t learn about Team Trump’s pretrial shenanigans.

What they will hear, however, is about the alleged assault itself and its alleged impact on Carroll, psychologically and financially. She is expected to testify, along with two friends in whom she confided at the time and two other women who say Trump assaulted them, decades apart. Additionally, she’ll be permitted to show the “Access Hollywood” tape and will offer testimony from a psychological expert.

And Trump’s expected defense? His witness list has dwindled to a party of two: His own psychological expert to rebut Carroll’s and himself. And given expectations that he won’t show, it appears his defense will rely, at least based on pretrial filings, on a scorched-earth strategy regrettably referred to as “sluts and nuts,” in which the defense seeks to portray the accuser as sexually promiscuous and mentally unstable. That kind of defense, of course, reflects a broader misogyny that is as quintessentially Trump as big hair, big homes and Big Macs. 

The woman challenging that misogyny was once a bouncy-haired blonde with a smile so dazzling that Trump testified that a late 1980s photo of her was his second wife, Marla Maples. Now, after waiting nearly 30 years and at 79 years old, she might just be the first to enforce the law against the true Teflon Don.