During E. Jean Carroll’s first day on the stand, her attorney asked what brought her to a Manhattan federal courtroom.
“I’m here because Donald Trump raped me and when I wrote about it he said it didn’t happen,” Ms. Carroll replied. “He lied and destroyed my reputation and I’m here to try and get my life back.”
A day later, Mr Trump, who had denied the attack and called Ms Carroll a liar, campaigned in New Hampshire and joked to a crowd about his changing nicknames for Hillary Clinton and President Biden. He made no mention of Ms. Carroll’s testimony or the civil trial that took place 250 miles away. But he cheerfully noted a poll released that day showing him leading the Republican primary field by a wide margin in 2024.
Since Mr. Trump was arraigned in a criminal case brought by Manhattan Attorneys last month, his legal troubles and his third presidential campaign have played out on split screen. The courtroom drama took place with no news cameras present, though the race has brought Mr. Trump back into the limelight, which was blacked out shortly after he left the Oval Office.
Ms Carroll’s harrowing statement, a visceral demonstration of Mr Trump’s legal danger, has emphasized the surreal nature of the rift. Mr. Trump is the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. But he’s also been indicted on 34 counts of record-breaking, and in the case of Ms. Carroll, a nine-person jury is set to decide whether he committed a rape decades ago. And then there are the other investigations into electoral interference, mishandling of sensitive documents and his role in the attack on the US Capitol.
“To see a past and potential future President of the United States confronted with all of these legal issues at once is bizarre,” said Jennifer Horn, a former leader of the New Hampshire Republican Party and a vocal opponent of Mr. Trump. “But what’s really worrying about it is that he’s the front runner of a major political party in this country. And you can’t just blame him for that. You must blame the leaders of the party and its primary base.”
The past week has brought a series of setbacks for the former president. Ms. Carroll gave a detailed and vivid testimony about meeting Mr. Trump. The judge in the case sought to restrict Mr. Trump’s social media posts, as did the Manhattan Attorney’s Office in their own case. And former Vice President Mike Pence testified before a grand jury hearing evidence about Mr Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Mike Murphy, a Republican political strategist who advised John McCain and Jeb Bush, said trials and investigations into Mr. Trump often create “a psychological roller coaster ride for Trump-hating Democrats” and give them hope that he will be brought down, only to leave her disappointed. Mr Trump’s legal woes are yet to create significant political problems given the unwavering loyalty of his key supporters.
Since Mr. Trump was impeached, his poll ratings have gone up. Criminal investigations against him in Georgia and Washington, as well as the trial of Ms. Carroll and a civil lawsuit for fraud brought by the New York City Attorney’s Office, have done little to hinder him from his supporters. The poll he mentioned Thursday predicted he would receive 62 percent of the vote in the Republican primary. His closest opponent, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has not yet declared that he is running, was polled at 16 percent.
But the investigation could do real harm to Mr. Trump. If convicted in Manhattan, where he pleaded not guilty to 34 charges of forging business records, he faces up to four years in prison. Criminal charges in Georgia and Washington could face stiffer penalties. And the New York Attorney General’s lawsuit against him – which has accused him of deceiving lenders and insurers by fraudulently overstating his assets – could take a heavy financial toll.
Regardless of the outcome, any direct link between Mr. Trump’s legal fate in the rape case and his political fate is tenuous. But Ms. Carroll’s lawyers have turned a 2016 political bombshell into a potent legal weapon: They plan to use the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Mr. Trump boasts about grabbing women by the genitals, as the basis for a compelling story about a self-deploying playboy man in town whose modus operandi was to attack women.
Mr Trump said on the tape, “If you’re a star, they’ll let you do it.” When the comments became public during the 2016 election, Mr Trump labeled them “locker room banter” and after his win they became an example his apparent immunity to scandal.
In the courtroom that Mr Trump avoided, Ms Carroll’s team argued that his words, even years after they were made public, cannot be dismissed.
“It wasn’t a locker room conversation,” Shawn G. Crowley, one of her attorneys, said on the first day of the hearing. “That’s exactly what he did to Ms. Carroll and other women.” These other women, named by Ms. Crowley as Jessica Leeds and Natasha Stoynoff, are expected to testify for Ms. Carroll.
Ms. Carroll described to the jury how a chance meeting with Mr. Trump at a Bergdorf Goodman store in New York City in the mid-1990s became an encounter that would haunt her for nearly 30 years.
The attack, she said, took place in a sixth-floor locker room. After Mr. Trump closed the door, she said, he pushed her against the wall so hard that she hit her head. He put his mouth on hers, said Ms. Carroll, pulled down her pantyhose, inserted his fingers into her vagina and then into his penis.
Ms. Carroll testified that she has not been able to have sex or a romantic relationship since.
“I’m basically a happy person, but I recognize that I’ve lost one of the glorious experiences of every human being,” she said. “Being in love with someone else, having dinner with them, walking the dog together. I haven’t.”
On Thursday, an attorney for Mr Trump, Joseph Tacopina, began cross-examining Ms Carroll. He attempted to highlight her lapses in memory — particularly her inability to date the alleged rape — and to obtain testimony, which he suggested would show the jury how implausible the story seemed. He noted that Ms Carroll herself wrote in her 2019 memoir, where she first told her story, that some of the details were “strange” and “unimaginable”.
“It all comes down to this: do you believe the unbelievable?” said Mr. Tacopina during his opening remarks.
The jury, six men and three women, will decide whether Ms. Carroll has proved by preponderance of evidence that Mr. Trump committed the attack. As this is a civil lawsuit, he would be more likely to face damages than a conviction.
Ms Carroll’s lawsuit also seeks to reverse what the lawsuit described as defamatory comments on his Truth Social website last October, when he called her case “a complete fraud” and “a fraud and a lie.”
The social platform is one of Mr. Trump’s most powerful political tools. And the legal cases threaten its unimpeded use.
On Tuesday, a prosecutor for the Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg asked the state judge in the criminal case over forged business records to stop Mr Trump from posting evidence online, including on that platform.
And on Wednesday, after the former president published posts on Truth Social calling Ms. Carroll’s allegations “fabricated fraud” and “fraudulent and false history,” federal judge Lewis A. Kaplan said they were “completely inappropriate” and suggested the former president was trying to sway the jury.
When Judge Kaplan was told hours later by Ms. Carroll’s attorney that Mr. Trump’s son Eric had tweeted an attack on Ms. Carroll’s case, the judge sternly suggested that the former president could face criminal penalties.
“If I were you,” Judge Kaplan told Mr. Tacopina, “I would have an interview with the client.”
Kate Christobek contributed reporting.