Trump doubles down on a losing hand in E. Jean Carroll’s rape case

Trump only cares about appealing to his base – but being adjudicated a rapist won't help his election chances

Published April 29, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on April 27, 2023 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally on April 27, 2023 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

This week, Donald Trump and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg offered us a tale of two citizens and the law. Bragg played a losing legal hand smartly. Trump? Not so much. 

Let's start there. In a Manhattan federal courtroom, E. Jean Carroll is suing the former president for allegedly raping her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the 1990s. Defendant Trump hasn't shown up, just as he told us he wouldn't.

His purported excuse? Concern for the "financial and logistical burdens" his appearance would impose on New York! 

You could be pardoned for skepticism. Trump has not historically been known as someone for whom concern for others has been a guiding light.

If you're looking for the real reason, Trump flees from being associated with anything that might tag him as a loser. Recall how he "didn't know" 2016 campaign manager Paul Manafort" or adviser George Papadopoulos when they were convicted of crimes. 

Here, Trump has reason to fear that he will be on the short end of the verdict in Carroll's case. This is a civil lawsuit, so she only needs the jury to believe that her charge is more likely true than not.

Carroll took the stand on Wednesday and testified that she brought the case "because Donald Trump raped me, and when I wrote about it, he said it didn't happen. He lied and shattered my reputation, and I'm here to get my life back."

She also testified that when the assault happened, she resisted, but "he thrust me back against the wall again, banging my head."

Trump's apparent defense turns on her delay in reporting the alleged assault, but it has a big problem. At the time of the alleged rape, she evidently told two friends about it, and they'll be witnesses. So will two other women who are expected to testify that Trump sexually assaulted them.

Not only that, but the judge has ruled that her lawyers can introduce the "Access Hollywood" video in which Trump said that if you're a celebrity, you can do anything to women, even "grab 'em by the p***y."

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Move over, Harvey Weinstein. Indeed, women coming forward against the disgraced producer, Carroll testified Thursday, are what inspired her to finally come out against Trump.

It's not hard to figure out Trump's calculation. If there's a significant risk that he's going to lose, why worry about hurting his chances because jurors dislike defendants who don't care enough to show up? He can always rerun his victimhood narrative of a "rigged jury." 

He told us as much by posting Wednesday on social media that the case is a "made up SCAM" and a "Witch-Hunt."

He followed up with another post on Thursday: "Does anybody believe that I would take a then almost 60 year old woman that I didn't know, from the front door of a very crowded department store" into "a tiny dressing room?"

He obviously prefers to argue his case to his base on Truth Social, where he can't be cross-examined, than to be part of a courthouse search for truth that he might lose. All he cares about is winning the GOP presidential nomination.  

Pounding his "witch-hunt" message works in MAGA-world, though not with federal Judge Lewis Kaplan. On Thursday, the judge issued a second warning to Trump, suggesting he was now "sailing into harm's way" with his media posts that had a whiff of "tampering" with a sitting jury in his case. (Kaplan ominously used that word in his first warning on Wednesday.) 

But there's something far more myopic on Trump's part. Trump may be fine in the Republican primary, but that's where he loses focus. Being adjudicated a rapist won't help him with suburban moms and independents in the general.

*        *       *

Smart players take another tack – they cut their losses. Consider Alvin Bragg. On April 19, New York federal district court Judge Mary Vyscosil ruled against Bragg in his suit to stop a Jim Jordan House Judiciary Committee subpoena to former Bragg Deputy DA Mark Pomerantz. 

Judge Vyscosil ordered Pomerantz to testify, but said he could object question-by-question and litigate any disputes about whether he must answer. Bragg appealed and won a temporary stay of the order. 

With that short-term win in hand, Bragg quickly settled rather than going to the mat in a difficult appeal. His office said the stay allowed time "to coordinate with the House Judiciary Committee on an agreement that protects the District Attorney's privileges and interests." Bragg was not about to let pride goeth before a fall on appeal. 

By contrast, in his losing cause, rather than settle Carroll's suit, Trump seems perfectly content playing to his pride and letting the chips fall where they may, including into President Joe Biden's hands and Jean Carroll's wallet.

By Dennis Aftergut

Dennis Aftergut, a former federal prosecutor, is currently of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.

MORE FROM Dennis Aftergut

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Alvin Bragg Commentary Donald Trump E Jean Carroll Politics