The split screen of Donald Trump’s re-election campaign and his parade of legal cases was on full display on Tuesday, as the Republican frontrunner, fresh off a victory in the Iowa caucuses, took his seat in yet another New York courtroom to face a multimillion dollar defamation suit.
E Jean Carroll, a columnist who Mr Trump was previously found liable of sexually assaulting in the 1990s, is now seeking damages for defamatory statements he made about her during his presidency.
Seated a few rows behind her, the former president stared intently at the woman he claims he “never met, saw, or touched… and knows absolutely nothing about”.
Ms Carroll, for her part, did not appear to look at him. She faced towards the bench for nearly all of the proceedings, allowing Mr Trump only a view of her back.
Unlike his last appearance in a Manhattan court – just last week, in an entirely different case – Mr Trump did not speak in the courtroom. But his restless and attentive posture projected a sense of agitation.
Last May, a different jury trial found Mr Trump had sexually assaulted and defamed Ms Carroll – a decision he hopes to reverse on appeal. The findings of that case are considered relevant here.
This new trial is to determine whether Mr Trump harmed her with specific defamatory statements he made in 2019, and if so, how much money he must pay her in compensation.
Shawn Crowley, one of Ms Carroll’s attorneys, said the jury would need to consider “how much money Donald Trump should have to pay for what he’s done”.
And, she added, “how much money will it take to make him stop”.
After Ms Carroll came forward with her allegations of rape, Mr Trump immediately sought to dismiss her claims from the White House.
In June 2019, Mr Trump called her account a “total false accusation” and said “I have no idea who this woman is”.
Those statements, her lawyers argue, impugned her reputation and unleashed a torrent of death threats, rape threats, and online vitriol.
Ms Crowley told the court the former president had “unleashed his followers to go after” Carroll “to threaten her life”.
She said Mr Trump had used “the world’s biggest microphone” to defame and humiliate her client, and “caused her to live every day in fear”.
Mr Trump continues to attack her relentlessly on his Truth Social account – even as his earlier statements were ruled defamatory.
As he spent Tuesday morning in court, the official account on Mr Trump’s Truth Social platform blasted out more than two dozen posts, calling the case “PURE FICTION”.
Alina Habba, Mr Trump’s lead attorney, claimed Carroll did not deserve damages, because her accusation of sexual assault had made her famous.
“Evidence will show you her career has prospered and she has been thrust back into the limelight Iike she always has wanted,” Ms Habba said.
Questions about QAnon
Mr Trump watched intently as prospective jurors filed one by one into the room, pivoting back and forth in his seat to size up each one as they answered questions from the judge.
His presence in the room during jury selection led to some unusual questions as lawyers and the judge sought to determine whether potential jurors could deliver an impartial verdict.
Questions included whether they had voted in the 2016 and 2020 elections; whether they believed in the QAnon conspiracy theory; whether they belonged to right-wing militia groups; and whether they supported the MeToo movement.
Two people said they believed the 2020 election had been stolen. One woman said she had volunteered for the Biden campaign that year. They were struck from the pool.
Due to intense media and political scrutiny, the jury will remain anonymous. The judge urged jurors to use fake names when talking to each other, and the court will transport them by secure means from undisclosed locations to the courthouse.
By about 15:00 local time (20:00 GMT), nine New York residents officially took their seats in the jury box.
But Mr Trump left the room before his accuser’s claims were re-aired by Judge Lewis Kaplan.
In a 2019 New York magazine piece, Ms Carroll, now 80, described a chance encounter with the then-real estate mogul inside a Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan in the 1990s.
The pair had bumped into each other while shopping, she said. Mr Trump then allegedly asked her for advice when buying lingerie for another woman and jokingly asked her to model it for him. But once in the changing rooms, Ms Carroll alleged the real estate tycoon lunged at her, pinned her against a wall and assaulted her.
Mr Trump immediately denied the story as “totally false”. He has also repeatedly suggested Ms Carroll invented it to sell her memoir.
The May 2023 trial found that Mr Trump did sexually abuse and defame Ms Carroll.
On Tuesday, Judge Kaplan instructed the jury that Mr Trump’s June 2019 statements were false, and defamatory, and that he knew they were false or probably false when he made them.
An explosive trial ahead
The Republican frontrunner did not attend the first civil trial based on Ms Carroll’s claims. For calling her story a “con job” and a “hoax” in 2022, he is already on the hook for $5m (£4m) in damages.
The trial will be brief, but carries the potential for dramatic moments.
Ms Carroll is expected to testify on Wednesday and the case is scheduled to wrap on Thursday. But the judge, Lewis Kaplan, has ruled Mr Trump will be allowed to testify next Monday.
That comes after a bitter dispute between both legal teams over what the former president can say on the stand.
In a stern warning issued last week, the judge wrote: “Mr Trump is precluded from offering any testimony, evidence or argument suggesting or implying that he did not sexually assault Ms Carroll, that she fabricated her account of the assault or that she had any motive to do so.”
Ms Carroll’s lead attorney, Roberta Kaplan (who is not related to Judge Kaplan), has said that Mr Trump will attempt to “sow chaos” with his testimony.
“There are any number of reasons why Mr Trump might perceive a personal or political benefit from intentionally turning this trial into a circus,” she wrote in a memo to Judge Kaplan.
In response, Ms Habba said the former president is “well aware” of the court’s ruling and “the strict confines placed on his testimony”.
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