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Trump absent from opening of trial on civil rape claims

The suit from writer E. Jean Carroll takes advantage of a new law that allows survivors of sexual assault to file ordinarily time-barred claims.

MANHATTAN (CN) — They had recognized each other in the revolving doors of the iconic department store Bergdorf Goodman, a lawyer for writer E. Jean Carroll explained Monday in opening arguments.

As Carroll was exiting the store one evening in the spring of 1996, the real estate tycoon Donald Trump was entering it.

Carroll at the time penned a popular advice column in Elle magazine, and Trump was a local celebrity. 

“His name was up on a bunch of buildings, and his face was up in the tabloids,” explained Shawn Crowley, an attorney at Kaplan Hecker & Fink. 

Carroll says Trump asked her to help him pick out a gift for a woman, and the two made their way toward the store’s lingerie department, which was empty in the evening hours. After Trump tossed her a lacy bodysuit and asked her to try it on, she tossed it back, telling Trump it was his color.  

“To her, the situation was harmless and funny. Her friends would laugh later when she told them about this random encounter,” Crowley said. 

But as the two entered the dressing room, Carroll says the mood changed: Trump pushed her against the wall, pressed his mouth on hers, and raped her as she struggled to get away. 

“The whole attack lasted just a few minutes, but it would stay with her forever,” Crowley said.  

Carroll did not go public about what happened until Trump was president. Though it would normally be too late to sue him now, New York state adopted a law last year that offers a 12-month look-back window for survivors of abuse to seek justice. Her complaint also includes a defamation count based on what Trump said in 2019 when Carroll finally came forward. 

“Speaking from the White House, he went on the attack, seeking to destroy and humiliate her. He said that none of it ever happened,” Crowley said. “He ridiculed her, accusing her of inventing the story to make money, to sell a book, advancing some grand political conspiracy.” 

Trump’s attorney Joseph Tacopina said there was good reason for the former president's response. 

“She called him a rapist. Of course he exploded. Of course he attacked her,” Tacopina said in his opening statement.  

This 1987 photograph of E. Jean Carroll and Donald Trump appears in Carroll's civil defamation suit against Trump to rebuff his claims that he could not have raped her because he never met her. (Image via Courthouse News)

Tacopina pointed to details Carroll can’t recall, including the year or month of the alleged assault. He cast doubt on Carroll’s reaction as Trump allegedly became violent — she says she tried to laugh it off at first — and noted Carroll didn’t file a police report, nor did she document the attack in her personal diary. 

Beyond repeating Trump’s defense that Carroll was just out to sell books, Tacopina said Carroll made more money and raised her profile after detailing the attack in her 2019 memoir “What Do We Need Men For?” Her media appearances included a CNN spot that Tacopina plans to show jurors. 

“You will be able to witness her bizarre behavior and hear the even stranger things she says in that video, and you’ll be able to see her basking in the spotlight, having the absolute time of her life,” said Tacopina, of the firm Tacopina Seigel & DeOreo. “She became a celebrity and loved every minute of it.” 

The defense attorney also implored jurors not to let their feelings for Trump get in the way of being impartial. 

“Nobody is above the law, but nobody’s beneath it. We all have to be treated the same even if you hate Donald Trump,” Tacopina said. 

Openings followed several hours of voir dire that ended with a jury picked of six men and three women. Jurors will remain anonymous, traveling to and from court with U.S. marshals. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan suggested that the panel keep their identities even from one another, using fake names. 

“The fewer people who know who you are, the better," Kaplan said. 

Carroll plans to call as witnesses two friends whom she says she told about the assault right after it happened. One insisted she report it immediately, and another — whose advice Carroll took — suggested she keep it to herself because Trump was powerful enough to ruin her life.

“In the end Ms. Carroll swore them to secrecy and, filled with fear and shame, she kept silent for decades,” Crowley said. 

As witnesses in these proceedings, Carroll's attorneys will also call two women who will describe instances of alleged assault by Trump, decades apart. Their stories share a common theme with Carroll's, saying Trump forcibly kissed or groped them in a semi-public setting. Jurors will also see the “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump, recorded on a hot mic, boasts about his tendency to “just start kissing” women and being allowed to “grab them by the pussy.” 

Those words flashed on a screen in the courtroom as Crowley spoke. She referenced Trump’s defense, that the comments were “locker room talk,” when the video circulated widely before the 2016 election. 

“That is his M.O.,” Crowley said. “This was not locker room talk. It’s exactly what he did to Ms. Carroll, and to other women.”  

Trump himself was absent from the crowded federal courtroom. His attorneys drew an admonishment late Tuesday from Judge Kaplan, who set an April 20 deadline for parties to let him know if and when they will attend trial

“The answer is I’m not sure. That’s the honest answer,” said Tacopina, apparently picking up on Kaplan’s frustration in his facial expression. “You can look at me that way, but that’s the answer.”  

Tacopina previously said security and logistical issues could thwart Trump’s attendance, and said his team would have to decide during trial whether the defendant would make the trip. For Kaplan, the limbo has gone on long enough. 

“The time has come. Not this minute — you’re going to need to tell me this week,” Kaplan said. 

Regardless of his attendance, jurors will see videos of Trump being deposed. One apparently includes a moment in which Trump mistakes Carroll for his second wife, Marla Maples. Crowley said this contradicts the stinging words that he used in 2019 — “ she's not my type” — and proves their case. 

“Ms. Carroll was exactly his type,” Crowley said. “The type of beautiful woman he was so attracted to he just automatically started kissing.” 

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Categories / Civil Rights, Entertainment, Media, Trials

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