Trump's entire defense in the E. Jean Carroll rape trial: shameless misogyny

Lawyers can't deny Trump's a liar or sexual predator — all that's left is implying women aren't worth listening to

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published April 27, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Writer E. Jean Carroll (C) leaves the Manhattan Federal Court in New York on April 25, 2023 | Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Writer E. Jean Carroll (C) leaves the Manhattan Federal Court in New York on April 25, 2023 | Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The most important thing to know about the E. Jean Carroll vs. Donald Trump trial is this: Carroll has been consistent in her telling of how Trump raped her in a department store dressing room in the 90s. Trump, on the other hand, can't keep his story straight.

From the first time she spoke out, in 2019, about the alleged assault at Bergdorf Goodman, Carroll's story hasn't changed: She ran into Trump while she was out and about, and, as she knew him a little socially, she went shopping with him as a lark. She was flirting with him lightly but was shocked when he followed her into a dressing room, threw her against a wall, and raped her. She escaped. She told friends. They told her it was rape. She struggled with that word because she didn't want to seem like a victim. But now she has come to accept that "rape" is what it was. 

She repeated these details Wednesday in front of a jury in New York City, where she's suing Trump for battery and defamation.

"I'm here because Donald Trump raped me," she began.

In a heart-wrenching testimony, Carroll told her story once again: She hung out with Trump on a whim. They bantered. Then he raped her. She was so scarred by the experience, she said, that she was "unable to ever have a romantic life again." This, too, is consistent with her first public recounting of this story, published in her book and in New York magazine in 2019: "I have never had sex with anybody ever again."

Trump, however, is all over the place.

He claimed he never met Carroll — but then admitted he did when shown a picture of them together. He claimed she was not his "type" — but when he was shown a photo of Carroll from the time of the alleged assault, he mistook her for his second wife, Marla Maples. In response to the other two dozen accusations against him, Trump said "vicious claims about me of inappropriate conduct with women are totally and absolutely false," and swore he would soon provide proof exonerating himself. He has never produced this proof. But while claiming publicly to abhor sexual abuse, in private, Trump bragged about how he enjoys assaulting women. He famously said into a hot mic, "Grab 'em by the pussy" because "when you're a star, they let you do it." Sometimes he splits the difference between these "sexual assault is bad" and "sexual assault is good" views, by saying that his alleged victims are not attractive enough to attack. The implication is that it would be on the table if they were hotter. 

The misogyny defense attempts to shift the frame from "did he do it?" to "isn't she annoying by making a fuss over this?"

Due to all of this, Trump's legal team is in a pickle. Their client is inconsistent on the basic question of whether rape is cool or not. He is the most famous liar in the world, taking any credibility defense off the table. So the defense team is playing the oldest card in the book: The misogyny defense.

It's a mish-mash of victim-blaming and sexist stereotypes, all to imply that women simply aren't important enough to rate the time and energy it takes to listen to their complaints about sexual abuse. Sadly, the misogyny defense has a long history for one simple reason: It all too often works. It plays off the larger social belief that a woman's role is to suffer in silence. The misogyny defense attempts to shift the frame from "did he do it?" to "isn't she annoying by making a fuss over this?" So many of us have been conditioned to dismiss women's voices that the misogyny defense still, in 2023, has a whole lot of power. 

During his opening statement Tuesday, Trump's lawyer, Joe Tacopina, shamelessly invoked the tedious stereotype that's typically used against sexual abuse accusers: That they are scheming witches only out for all the riches and rewards that misogynists assume are granted to rape victims. Of the women who have accused Trump — a group that numbers over two dozen, mind you — Tacopina said, "They schemed to hurt Donald Trump politically." Of Carroll herself, he said she made up "a false claim of rape for money, for political reasons and for status."

Tacopina's theory, however, is self-contradictory. To defend this claim, he alluded to a right-wing conspiracy theory that anti-Trump lawyer George Conway put Carroll up to this whole scheme. But the timeline is quite clear: Conway only pushed Carroll to sue after Carroll came forward with the allegations. If she was making up the story for money, how is that money only came into the picture after she spoke out? 

Misogynists talk as if speaking out about rape is a fun party. The reality is closer to what Carroll described in her deposition: "[W]omen who have been raped are looked at in this society as less, are looked at as spoiled goods, are looked at as rather dumb to let themselves get attacked." She repeated this concern in court Wednesday, saying, "I was ashamed. I thought it was my fault." She noted that people often prefer to blame the victim, which, of course, is exactly what Tacopina and Trump are depending on. 

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Speaking out has led Carroll to be the constant target of abuse from one of the most famous men in the world. As she testified, "The force of hatred coming at me was staggering" and "I've regretted this 100 times," especially as so many people look on her now with "pity."  But it's far from over. Even as she was preparing to take the stand, Trump was letting loose with more invective on Truth Social, sneering that she's "Ms. Bergdorf Goodman" and calling her story a "hoax." 

When the judge called out Trump's posts in court, Tacopina said he would "ask him to refrain from any further posts." But Tacopina's defense strategy is mining the same territory: Using sexist stereotypes to discredit accusers and belittling the pain of victims. In particular, Tacopina leaned heavily into the idea that the real problem is hysterical women turning molehills into mountains. 

Trump's absence from the courtroom can also be read as part of this misogyny-based defense strategy.

Over the weekend, Tacopina argued against allowing journalist Natasha Stoynoff to testify about a 2005 incident, in which she described Trump "pushing me against the wall and forcing his tongue down my throat." Tacopina claimed that this shouldn't count as evidence, because it was "mere kissing." This downplaying doesn't comport with what Stoynoff wrote in People, where she described being pinned by Trump and only rescued because a butler came into the room. She also describes Trump saying, "You know we're going to have an affair, don't you?" It's a comment that makes clear his belief that her consent would not be necessary for an "affair."

(This is why I object to the press calling Trump's single sexual encounter with Stormy Daniels as an "affair," as well. While Daniels says she consented, what she describes is reluctant at best. She said she felt "I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone's room alone." "Consent" under duress is not an "affair," even if we want to quibble over whether it meets the legal standard of consent.) 

Trump's absence from the courtroom can also be read as part of this misogyny-based defense strategy. As former federal prosecutor Shan Wu wrote in the Daily Beast, this is likely meant "to send a not-so-subtle message to the jury that the claims are not serious enough to even warrant his attendance." Wu is skeptical of this as a strategy, noting juries feel that if they "have to be there because of him," he should also be there. But it does comport with the larger sexist strategy of the defense. How better to signal contempt for women's stories than by refusing to even listen to them?

Of course, there's a pragmatic reason to keep Trump away, which is that he's too undisciplined. He can't keep his story straight regarding sexual abuse, and whether he's for it or against it. During the deposition, for instance, Trump tried to stick to his story that no encounter happened. But, being the sexist pig he is, he kept veering very close to contradicting himself in order to invoke another sexist myth about rape, which is that victims are asking for it. 

"She actually indicated that she loved it," he grumbled during the October 19, 2022 testimony, referring to a CNN interview he watched with Carroll. "In fact, I think she said it was sexy, didn't she? She said it was very sexy to be raped."

Carroll's attorney almost caught him, by replying, "So, sir, I just want to confirm:· It's your testimony that E. Jean Carroll said that she loved being sexually assaulted by you?" Seemingly realizing his screw-up, Trump back-tracked and started dithering about how he was merely speculating about her mental acuity based on a cable news program. But one can see from this, and from Trump's social media posts, why his lawyers are so worried he will let some damning detail slip if he's under the pressure of cross-examination. 

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"She's lying" and "she was asking for it" have always contradicted each other, but are often invoked side-by-side by rape apologists. Traditionally, misogyny doesn't need to be logical for people to buy it. But in a court, at least these days, even sexists know it doesn't make sense to both say she wanted it and it didn't happen. It's a small sign of progress.

As for larger signs of progress well, only time will tell. It seems silly to believe that Carroll is enjoying the experience of being subjected to threats and insults, as Tacopina's defense strategy would have you believe. But that's the point of the misogyny defense. It's not really about making sense, so much as giving people an excuse not to care. Despite the ubiquity of the "believe women" slogan, it's never really been about truth at all. It's about whether or not rape matters. If you tell a story where victims are schemers and gold-diggers and attention whores, that allows people to shrug off the duty to care what happens to them. 

As Carroll herself repeatedly said both before and during her testimony, she mostly kept quiet not because she worried people wouldn't believe her. It's because she thought they would blame her. She spoke out after the #MeToo movement because she thought, for the first time, she might find sympathy instead of second-guessing. Certainly, her supporters were out in droves this week. But it remains to be seen if the shift to empathy instead of victim-blaming has permeated the culture enough to win over a jury. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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