Left: Donald Trump (AP Photo / Seth Wenig, Pool) Right: E. Jean Carroll (AP Photo / Brittainy Newman)
Former President Donald Trump has denied every single sexual misconduct allegation against him—by no fewer than 26 women—and threatened to sue over them.But starting Tuesday, Trump, who’s already facing a host of other legal problems, will find himself on trial because of one of those women: E. Jean Carroll, a magazine columnist who accused Trump of raping her nearly 30 years ago—and then sued him for defamation, twice, when he denied it, as well as for battery.
Because Carroll’s case is unfolding in civil, not criminal, court, there is no chance that the case will end with Trump being declared “guilty” of rape and hauled off to jail. But of the many sexual misconduct allegations against Trump, Carroll’s claim may end up the only one determined in a court of law. For sexual assault survivors and their advocates, who are now confronting the legacy of the #MeToo movement six years after it overtook social media, this case has now become a test: Can a woman prove in court that one of the most powerful men in the world sexually assaulted her? And if she can't or if her reputation is destroyed in the process, what does that mean for everybody else?“For other survivors who are watching this, there’s a lot about her story that feels familiar and sounds familiar—the decision to stay quiet and then maybe the empowerment that comes from having seen so many other victims come forward in this #MeToo era. This is all very relatable,” said Deborah Tuerkheimer, a Northwestern Pritzker School of Law professor and author of the book Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers. “And yet our legal system, whether it’s the criminal side or the civil side, has traditionally not done well at meting out justice.” Carroll has said that Trump raped her in a Manhattan department store in the mid-1990s. At the time, she said, she told two friends what had happened, and both women have since corroborated her account. But Carroll didn’t come forward publicly—until 2019, when she published her account in New York Magazine in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
When then-President Trump denied the allegation, Carroll sued him for defamation. (That case is still active but has not made it to trial.) Then, in 2022, New York state lawmakers passed what is known as the Adult Survivors Act, a state that creates a year-long window of time where people may sue others for sexual abuse even if the statute of limitations on the alleged crime has passed. Carroll used that law to sue Trump for battery over the rape, as well as for a statement he made in 2022 that once again denied the allegations and said that Carroll “is not my type!” The existence of the Adult Survivors Act is already a victory for sexual assault survivors and a giant leap forward in the cultural and legal understanding of sexual misconduct, according to Laura Beth Nielsen, a Northwestern University sociology professor who studies sexual misconduct law and how ordinary people understand legal processes. It reflects the reality that survivors can sometimes take years to come forward about what happened to them, if they ever do.But that doesn’t mean that Carroll won’t get questions about why she waited so long to report Trump or why she said she laughed as the alleged attack unfolded—or that those questions won’t make survivors doubt that anyone would ever believe them. “Most people have already decided whether they think this is a legitimate claim or not,” Nielsen said. “I just get worried that people who have been victims will feel revictimized watching it all happen.”
When the last major defamation trial involving high-profile celebrities hit the news, fans of Johnny Depp ripped his ex-wife, Amber Heard, apart on social media. Long before she lost the trial, Heard was humiliated in the court of public opinion. The relentless memes and mockery were a devastating message to other people who may be interested in coming forward with their own allegations of abuse: “You’re just going to see fewer victims speaking up,” one expert told VICE News at the time. “Some victims will think that they can’t even leave because they've seen their friends and families attack Heard and support Depp.”Now, fears are swirling that Carroll’s case against Trump will trigger similar reactions.
“Donald Trump incited an insurrection. So what do you think is going to happen?” asked Alison Turkos, an anti-sexual assault activist who lobbied for New York’s Adult Survivors Act. “I think that we're going to see next week and during this trial is that people are going to double down and say credibly harmful, just wrapped in vitriol, disgusting things about E. Jean. Which then is them saying something about victims and survivors of sexual assault and particularly of rape.”
“Donald Trump incited an insurrection. So what do you think is going to happen?”
When sexual violence allegations hit the news, calls to sexual misconduct hotlines go up, Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, told VICE News. “It's not necessarily because there has been an increased incidence of of sexual assault or domestic violence, but it's because the survivors who have been impacted are in some way needing additional support or support for the first time,” she said.Every advocate who spoke to VICE News emphasized the extraordinariness of Carroll’s case—and how observers should keep that in mind if they want to compare their situations to Carroll’s. Because this case involves a famed magazine columnist and a wildly controversial former president squaring off in a federal courthouse, both parties have access to the kind of legal and financial firepower that most people can only dream of. Jurors may even hear the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape, where Trump bragged about how he can “grab ‘em by the pussy.” Plus, a miniscule number of sexual misconduct cases ever end up going to trial. Rape is a notoriously underreported crime; out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, just 25 perpetrators will end up incarcerated, according to statistics from RAINN, one of the nation’s preeminent anti-sexual assault organizations. Even civil cases, like Carroll’s, often do not end up going to trial.“I think this could be really confusing for survivors because they'll see this and they'll be like, ‘Fuck, I want my day in court,” Turkos said. “The reason why this is happening is also because who is involved in this case and because he is so powerful. But this is not the standard.”Still, she said, there are many ways that survivors can find ways to heal. And not all of them involve a judge or jury. “Whatever a survivor decides is justice and healing and what that journey looks like—because healing is not a destination, it's a journey—that is wonderful for them,” Turkos said.Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.