Trump Was Found Liable for Sexual Abuse. What Happens Now?

The verdict in the E. Jean Carroll case is sure to leave a complicated legacy for any survivors looking for answers. But it is evidence of life in the legal fight against sexual misconduct.

Why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you come forward sooner? Are you sure that you’re not just making this all up?

These are the kinds of questions that E. Jean Carroll batted away during her cross-examination from former President Donald Trump’s lawyer, as Carroll tried to prove that Trump had raped her in a Manhattan dressing room in the 1990s. They are also the kind of questions that any sexual assault survivor fears confronting when they come forward. But on Tuesday, a jury of nine New Yorkers decided that Carroll’s answers were enough. 


Six men and three women found that Trump had sexually abused Carroll and defamed her when he denied her accusations. They awarded her $5 million in a civil lawsuit. It was the first time that Trump, accused of sexual misconduct by at least 26 women, had to face one of those women in a court of law. It was also yet another highly public test of whether a woman’s story can overcome a man’s indignation—after media outlets had started to suggest that the #MeToo movement had lost its power.

“I filed this lawsuit against Donald Trump to clear my name and to get my life back,” Carroll said in a statement Tuesday. “Today, the world finally knows the truth. This victory is not just for me but for every woman who has suffered because she was not believed."

The verdict in the E. Jean Carroll case is sure to leave a complicated legacy for Carroll, Trump, and any survivors looking for answers. But it is, at least, some evidence of life in the legal fight against sexual misconduct.

“I’m thrilled,” said Laura Beth Nielsen, who studies how everyday people understand the law as director of the Center for Legal Studies at Northwestern University. “This is a unique law, this is a unique case, but hopefully it’s a sign to survivors that we’re opening our ability to imagine that they’re telling the truth.” 


In the years since #MeToo swept across social media in 2017, high-profile sexual assault cases and their verdicts have been endlessly analyzed for meaning. Bill Cosby, once heralded as the first conviction of the post-#MeToo world, was released from prison on a technicality. Just last year, Johnny Depp defeated Amber Heard in both a court of law and in the court of public opinion—to the point that Heard has now reportedly quit Hollywood and moved to Spain. The only prominent allegations that seemed to stick were those against Harvey Weinstein, who was convicted of sexual assault on two different coasts. 

The very existence of Carroll’s public accusation is already thanks to the #MeToo movement, since Carroll has said that it inspired her to come forward. The fact that she can sue Trump, over an encounter that took place decades ago, is also due to the work of sexual assault survivors and their advocates: Although Carroll originally sued Trump for defamation, after he denied her accusations while still president, she sued him again for defamation and battery after the passage of New York’s Adult Survivors Act. 


That law, enacted in November 2022, gives adult survivors a one-year window to sue their attackers or the institutions that enabled them, no matter how long ago the assault took place. It only passed after the activists battled the state legislature for 13 years to also pass the Child Victims Act, which opened up a similar window for survivors of child sex abuse. 

“This verdict, this trial, this lawsuit would not be possible if it weren't for the incredible survivors who fought exhaustively and relentlessly to change the law,” said Alison Turkos, who lobbied for the Adult Survivors Act. “We had to change the law for this trial to happen.”

But as much as Carroll’s verdict may be vindication for the magazine columnist, its implications outside the courtroom are far from certain. 

The #MeToo movement, both when it was launched by Tarana Burke in 2006 and in 2017, trumpeted the power of storytelling. If enough people came forward, the thinking went, culture would change. But in the years since, the movement’s success has been hobbled by the widespread perception that only one kind of storytelling really counts: successful courtroom testimony.

The overwhelming majority of sexual assault cases never go to trial. Most are never reported to the police and, of those that are, a fraction result in convictions. For every survivor who looks at Carroll’s case and sees justice, that may be one more survivor who feels like they cannot have it because they never got as far as she did. 


Even civil cases, like Carroll’s, may not end in a trial, since people may settle. This is the catch with measuring #MeToo’s success through legal battles: High-profile, successful sexual assault cases do not fix sexual assault. In fact, their outcomes can even be misleading.

“I just want us to be cognizant that every single person always deserves access to the civil court system, but that every single case is going to be different. Every single rapist is going to be different, every single abuser is going to be different,” Turkos said. “For a survivor who is contemplating filing a civil lawsuit, or a family member who was supporting a survivor who is contemplating filing a civil lawsuit, they may see this and think, ‘Oh, it's easy. She filed this lawsuit in November. When the window opened, it went to trial quickly. She got her money.’ And that's not it.”

And although Carroll had claimed that Trump raped her, the jury found that Trump had committed sexual abuse—not rape. When collecting crime statistics, the FBI has since 2013 defined rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” (Up until that point, the FBI had defined rape as “the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.”) This is not, however, how rape is defined across all U.S. law, nor how it’s always understood in the public imagination. Judge Lewis Kaplan instructed the jury to define rape as nonconsensual sexual intercourse, which he described as “any penetration of the penis into the vaginal opening,” the New York Times reported


In her complaint, Caroll said that Trump cornered in a Bergdorf Goodman’s dressing room, “then pushed his fingers around Carroll’s genitals and forced his penis inside her.” The jury may have concluded that Trump did grope Carroll, but not that he penetrated her.

Trump’s lawyer Joe Tacopina is already using that distinction to cast doubt on the whole process. “Strange verdict,” Tacopina told the New York Daily News. “This was a rape case all along, and the jury rejected that, but made other findings, so we’ll obviously be appealing those other findings.” 

It’s also unclear what, if any, impact this verdict will have on Trump’s campaign for president.  By the time of his first presidential election, numerous women had already accused Trump of sexual misconduct. Trump had also been caught on a live microphone boasting about being able to “grab ‘em by the pussy” because he’s a “star”—a major scandal that ultimately proved to be a minor speed bump in Trump’s political career. He’s still set to appear at a CNN town hall on Wednesday.

“This is why I'm really hesitant to talk about this verdict in terms of a metric of success. Because I believe—and I honestly would say I know—that this verdict would not do anything for the people who rely on his every word and breath he takes to determine their next step,” Turkos said. “And they would 100 percent put him in office again and probably be proud to put him in office again after the outcome of this case.”

This case could, however, have one major consequence: There could be more verdicts against Trump. If it makes sense to file a case in New York, other Trump accusers could decide to file lawsuits under the Adult Survivors Act. The window to do so closes in November.

Turkos said that no one who has accused Trump of sexual misconduct has asked her for help. But if they did, she’d “love to” help them.

“If there is a survivor or victim who was abused by our former president and they would like help navigating the civil legal system, I am raising my hand. I am easy to get a hold of. My DMs are open,” she said. “I will do anything I can. They have six months to file a lawsuit. Let’s fucking go.”