Not just the coup: Trump used the "aspirational" defense in the E. Jean Carroll rape lawsuit

A judge ruled against the "aspirational rapist" defense, and hopefully it won't work in the January 6 case

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 11, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

E. Jean Carroll, Donald Trump and Jack Smith (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
E. Jean Carroll, Donald Trump and Jack Smith (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In the torrent of bad faith, illogical, and simply weird defenses being floated by Donald Trump's defenders, one stood out this week as especially appalling: His crimes were merely "aspirational."

Trump's latest in the constant churn of defense lawyers, John Lauro, is absolutely in love with the word "aspirational." On Sunday, he hit five separate political talk shows, repeating the word like a parrot

"Every single thing that President Trump is being prosecuted for involved aspirational asks - asking state legislatures, asking state governors, asking state electoral officials to do the right thing," Lauro told Fox News. (The "right thing" is GOP code for "steal the election.") 

"What President Trump didn't do is direct Vice President Pence to do anything," Lauro falsely claimed on CNN, calling the repeated badgering of Mike Pence merely "aspirational." He used the word again to describe Trump's taped phone call to Brad Raffensperger, in which Trump demanded that the Georgia Secretary of State "find" him enough votes to beat President Joe Biden. 

Lauro tied "aspirational" to his claim that Trump's relentless efforts to strongarm election officials were merely "free speech." Taken together, one can see the defense forming: Trump's relentless pressure on people at all levels of government to steal the election for him wasn't what it looks like. There was no conspiracy to overturn the government. Trump is just a delusional old man babbling at people! And empty chatter ain't no crime! 

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Trump himself is leaning hard into the argument that he's too big of an imbecile to take seriously as a threat.

In an interview with Newsmax Wednesday night, Trump rambled, "I believe I won that election by many, many votes, many, many hundreds of thousands of votes," emphasizing repeatedly, "that's what I think." Even by Trump standards, the performance of idiocy was over-the-top. Newsmax indulged his "gosh, I'm too big a moron to be a criminal" act by running a disclaimer immediately after his interview aired: "Newsmax has accepted the election results as legal and final."

Taking Trump literally when he said he likes to "grab 'em by the pussy" turned out to be the best bet.

This is hardly the first time that Trump's clownishness has been used as a shield to deflect attention from his malevolence. There's the infamous Trump apologist Salena Zito scolding the press in 2016 for taking Trump "literally but not seriously," framing his pathological lying as merely an endearing quirk. Or the anonymous Republican official who excused the Big Lie in November 2020 by asking, "What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?" and insisting, "It's not like he's plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20." (As the indictments filed by special prosecutor Jack Smith show, plotting to overthrow an election is exactly what Trump was doing.) And, of course, there's Trump's infamous claim that a tape of him bragging about sexual assault was merely "locker room talk" and not a description of his actual behavior. 

Taking Trump literally when he said he likes to "grab 'em by the pussy" turned out to be the best bet, as demonstrated by the over two dozen women who stepped forward to describe everything from forced kisses to outright rape at Trump's hands. The most famous of these, of course, is E. Jean Carroll, who was awarded $5 million by a jury that found Trump had sexually assaulted her in a department store in the 90s. 

Trump then retaliated against Carroll by suing her for defamation when she said "yes he did" when asked if he raped her. The lawsuit was on another version of the "aspirational" defense that Lauro is rolling out for the coup. Trump is claiming he isn't a "rapist," because the jury did not conclude that he had successfully penetrated her with his penis, only his hand. As with the coup defense, Trump's "innocence" rests on claims of incompetence. He's bad at seeing his crimes to completion, the argument goes, so really, is he a criminal? 

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The grossness of this argument really comes into focus when discussing sexual assault. The jury found that Trump cornered Carroll and shoved fingers in her vagina. Trump is acting like this is exoneration, but in any normal person's mind, that behavior makes you a rapist, even if you didn't quite finish the crime. Luckily, the judge dismissed the case, pointing out, albeit in lawyerly language, how preposterous it is to get into a quibble fight over the difference between a successful rape vs. what you might call an "aspirational" rape.

As a friend pointed out to me in response to Lauro's "aspirational" comments, this is just the "Sideshow Bob" defense, where one demands a mulligan because you failed at the crime you set out to commit. 

Crucial here is that these distinctions between rape and borderline rape don't really matter that much to the victim, Carroll, who experienced years of lingering trauma because of the attack. The same is true when it comes to the attempted coup. No, Trump didn't succeed. But that doesn't mean his "aspirational" crime didn't cause serious injuries. Many people were seriously harmed by his behavior, from election officials who endured abuse to the people injured or dead because of the Capitol riot. 

Trump has yet another federal hearing today, as his defense team resists a basic protective order limiting how Trump can use evidence gathered for trial in his inevitable efforts to intimidate witnesses. They seem to be using what would usually be a minor paperwork issue as practice for the "aspirational" defense, or, put more bluntly, the "clownasses can't be criminals" defense.

If he succeeded, he certainly would want us to take our new Trump dictatorship seriously. But since he didn't, he wants to act like it wasn't real.  

Their pre-hearing documents complain that in limiting Trump's ability to threaten people, "the government seeks to restrict First Amendment rights." Once again, Trump's defenders are pretending that it's all just "locker room talk," ignoring the action that is associated with it, in this case, Trump prompting his unhinged followers to murder people. We were reminded again this week that Trump is not just some babbling moron no one listens to when a 75-year-old man in Utah died after getting into a shootout with the FBI after he threatened to assassinate Biden on Trump's behalf. 

Trump is not the only person associated with the coup who wants to have it both ways: To be taken seriously if they succeed, but also to pretend it's all just an elaborate role-playing game if they fail. Earlier this week, the lawyer John Eastman — known as "Co-Conspirator 2" in the indictment — released a video interview where he defended his part in the coup by claiming the Declaration of Independence entitles people "to alter or abolish the existing government," if they feel it's become "intolerable." 

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It's a ludicrous argument, as the "intolerable" situation Eastman is describing is "ordinary Democrat elected with a healthy majority of votes." But even if you set that aside, Eastman is full of it. The founders Eastman cites as justification, as Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo wrote, "knew full well" that if "they lost they would all hang." They accepted that risk. Eastman, however, is arguing that he should have a risk-free shot at overthrowing democracy. If he succeeded, he certainly would want us to take our new Trump dictatorship seriously. But since he didn't, he wants to act like it wasn't real.  

Similarly, nine Michigan Republicans who were arraigned Thursday on state charges for forging documents in Trump's "fake elector" scheme are also using the "aspirational" defense. On MSNBC, the lawyer for one of the defendants, Clifford Frost, sneeringly argued that "no one in their right mind" would believe that the forged election documents "would trump the certificate of an election that was rightfully sent." Instead, he claimed that the document was merely about registering an "objection" to the election results. 

That, of course, isn't true. As Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel explained when announcing the charges, these people "met covertly in the basement of Michigan GOP Headquarters and knowingly and of their own volition signed their names to multiple certificates stating that they were: '…the duly elected and qualified electors for President and Vice President of the United States of America for the State of Michigan.'" This wasn't just some vague "objection" to the results of the election, but out of "the hope and belief that the electoral votes of Michigan's 2020 election would be awarded to the candidate of their choosing, instead of the candidate that Michigan voters actually chose."

Which is to say: Not one of these people would be saying they were just kidding around, if the plan had actually worked. But it failed. Now they are trying to escape justice by pretending it was, well, locker room talk. Aspirational. Not literal. Just jokes. There are a million variations of the same Trumpian tapdance: Take them seriously only when doing so benefits them, but otherwise, let's all just pretend that the assault on democracy is just idle chatter. Unless, of course, they finally succeed in destroying democracy. Then we find their "aspirations" were deadly serious indeed. 

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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Commentary Donald Trump E. Jean Carroll John Eastman John Lauro Michigan Fake Electors