Judge rebukes Trump's lawyers early and often in sexual assault and defamation trial
Writer E. Jean Carroll claims Trump raped her in the mid-'90s and later defamed her by calling the accusation a lie.
NEW YORK — During the first two days of testimony in the civil battery and defamation lawsuit filed against former President Donald Trump, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan repeatedly rebuked Trump’s lawyers.
The lawsuit, which was brought by magazine columnist and author E. Jean Carroll, involves her claim that Trump raped her in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan in the mid-1990s then defamed her by calling the accusation a lie.
“I’m here because Donald Trump raped me, and when I wrote about it he said it didn’t happen,” Carroll testified Wednesday at the Daniel Patrick Moynihan U.S. Courthouse in Lower Manhattan. “He lied and shattered my reputation and I’m here to try to get my life back.”
Trump has repeatedly claimed he never met Carroll (despite having been photographed with her and her then husband at a party in the late ’80s), and crassly asserted that she was “not my type.” In court, his lawyers have sought to paint Carroll as inconsistent and unreliable, suggesting her decisions to publicly accuse, and then sue, the former president were motivated by a desire to sell books and “settle a political score.”
On Wednesday, Carroll was the second witness to take the stand. The first, Cheryl Beall, a former Bergdorf Goodman manager, testified about the layout of the store’s sixth floor, where Carroll says the alleged assault occurred. Beall also told the jury that dressing rooms could have been left open and unattended at the time of the alleged sexual attack.
A former talk show host and writer for “Saturday Night Live,” Carroll elicited a few laughs from the judge and others in the courtroom throughout her sometimes-tearful two days of testimony, during which she described in excruciating detail the alleged assault by Trump, her decision to finally come forward after more than 20 years, and the “wave of slime” she said she received from strangers online after Trump called her a liar.
She also acknowledged that her recollection of some specific details about the attack, including the precise timing of when it occurred, is shaky.
“The date has just been something that I am constantly trying to pin down,” she said. “It’s very difficult.”
The trial is expected to last at least another week and the defense will continue its cross-examination of Carroll on Monday morning. Trump is not legally obligated to attend the trial, but his attorneys have left open the possibility that he may do so. In the meantime, he has already weighed in from the sidelines — prompting one of several rebukes that his attorneys, and in particular lead lawyer Joe Tacopina, have already received from the judge.
Here is a rundown of the most notable examples.
‘Not even close to true’
On the first day of the trial, Kaplan issued guidance to the lawyers for the plaintiff and defense advising their clients to refrain from making any public statements or social media posts about the case that could incite unrest.
Before testimony began on Wednesday, Carroll’s attorneys informed the judge that, overnight, Trump had posted about the case on his social media platform, Truth Social, in which he called it a “made up SCAM” and a “Witch Hunt” and accused one of Carroll’s lawyers of being a “political operative.”
Trump’s post referenced the dress that Carroll says she was wearing at the time of the alleged rape, writing “The dress should be allowed to be part of the case.”
Kaplan called the post “entirely inappropriate,” and noted that Trump had previously refused requests from Carroll’s lawyers to produce a DNA sample that could be compared against DNA found on the dress.
“That isn’t even close to true,” Kaplan said, referring to Trump’s suggestion that Carroll “didn’t want to produce” the dress.
Kaplan also told Tacopina that it appeared Trump was “basically endeavoring” to speak “to the jury in this case” with his social media posts.
Although Tacopina noted that the jury had already been instructed to avoid all coverage and discussion of the case in the news and on social media, he assured the judge that he would speak to his client and urge him to refrain from making any further statements about the case, though he suggested that he could not make any promises.
“I will do the best I can do, your honor,” Tacopina said. “That’s all I can say.”
Kaplan then went on to warn Tacopina that Trump’s commentary could carry legal consequences.
“We’re getting into an area where, conceivably, your client may or may not be tampering with a new source of potential liability,” Kaplan said, adding, “And I think you know what I mean.”
‘Talk to your client immediately’
By the time court resumed after lunch Wednesday, there was another social media post to discuss, this time from Trump's son Eric.
In a since-deleted post on Twitter, Eric Trump wrote conspiratorially about the fact that Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn and Democratic donor, had helped fund Carroll’s lawsuit against Trump — a fact that, moments earlier, Kaplan had ruled could not be introduced as evidence in the trial.
Eric suggested that Hoffman’s reported financial involvement in the case, which was made through a nonprofit grant he gave to the law firm representing Carroll, was motivated by “pure hatred, spite or fear of a formidable candidate, is an embarrassment to our country, should be illegal and tells you everything you need to know about the case at hand…”
Tacopina was quick to defend the former president’s son, saying, “Eric Trump didn’t do anything wrong,” because the post appeared to have been published before the judge’s ruling on the funding issue.
Kaplan, however, reminded Tacopina that “I said something this morning about your client perhaps now sailing into harm’s way, conceivable with his son, if what I just heard is true.”
“There are some relevant United States statutes here, and someone on your side ought to be thinking about them,” Kaplan said, adding: “If I were in your shoes, I would talk to your client immediately.”
‘I know just what you’re up to’
As testimony resumed on Wednesday, Trump’s defense team once again received pushback from the judge that was conducted outside the presence of the jury regarding whether Trump’s lawyers should be able to question Carroll about other instances of sexual abuse and violence that she described in her 2019 book, “What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal,” including an altercation she described involving her ex-husband, John Johnson.
Specifically, Kaplan took issue with Trump’s attorney’s desire to introduce what they referred to as the “cause” of an argument that resulted in Johnson strangling her. In her book, Carroll describes calling Johnson, who is black, “an ape” during the argument.
“It’s relevant,” Tacopina insisted. “He got violent because she called him an ape.”
But Kaplan emphatically disagreed, “the unfair prejudicial effect” of the comment “outrageously outweighs any probative value.”
“To introduce that in front of a mixed-race jury in New York, it is outrageous,” Kaplan told Tacopina, adding: “I know just what you’re up to and I’m not allowing it.”
‘Move it along’
Throughout Tacopina’s cross-examination of Carroll on Thursday afternoon, Kaplan repeatedly urged Tacopina to “move it along” and sustained several objections from Carroll’s lawyers over questions Kaplan described as “repetitive” and “argumentative.”
The judge appeared to grow especially impatient with repeated questions from Tacopina about the fact that Carroll never reported her alleged assault to the police or any authorities.
“The fact that she didn’t go to the police is about as notorious a fact as the Yankees haven’t won a world series in years,” Kaplan said.
“We’ve been up and down the mountain about whether or not she went to the police,” he told Tacopina. “Move on.”