Photo: Amanda Demme for New York Magazine
On Friday, New York published a harrowing account from author and longtime Elle advice columnist E. Jean Carroll in which she recounted being raped by Donald Trump in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the 1990s. Carroll’s story, which is excerpted from Carroll’s new book, What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal, has already been read more than a million times. Below is a roundup of the response thus far, including wild accusations from the president, commentary from pundits, politicians, and readers, and the debate over the implications of Carroll coming forward.
On Friday night, Carroll appeared on MSNBC’s Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, where she shared the story again, in person instead of on paper:
She also went deeper into how she — as many victims of sexual assault do — felt she was responsible for the attacks. “I blamed myself and I was silent and I felt guilty,” she told the Washington Post, explaining that she hoped that finally talking about the experiences “will empower women to come forward and not feel bad.”
On Friday, President Trump released a statement responding to Carroll’s story in which he denied her allegations and attacked her and New York with some allegations of his own.
“I’ve never met this person in my life,” Trump claimed, making no mention of the photograph New York published in Carroll’s story showing him, her, and their then spouses talking at a party in 1987.
“She is trying to sell a new book — that should indicate her motivation,” Trump continued. New York, Trump added, was “a dying publication” trying “to prop itself up by peddling fake news.” Carroll’s cover story was also, Trump claimed, a political attack orchestrated by the Democratic Party, and called for anyone who had information proving it to come forward. His statement, which Vox writer Laura McGann later argued was an attempt to gaslight the country, ended with a veiled threat.
“The world should know what’s really going on,” Trump said, “It is a disgrace and people should pay dearly for such false accusations.”
Speaking with reporters on Saturday, President Trump again dismissed the allegations and finally addressed the photo of him and Carroll, implying that it was not showing them meeting. “Standing with my coat on in a line? Give me a break — with my back to the camera? I have no idea who she is,” he claimed.
“She’s made this charge against others,” Trump added, “this is about many men, and I am one of many men she wrote about.” He then made another veiled threat:
People have to be careful, because they’re playing with very dangerous territory. When they do that, and it’s happening more and more, when you look at what happened to Justice Kavanaugh and you look at what happened to others, you can’t do that for the sake of publicity.
“This is not political,” Carroll told the Washington Post. “Sexual violence is not political.”
During her appearance on Last Word on Friday night, she also responded to the accusation that she was just trying to sell books, ridiculing the suspicion being directed at “an elderly woman” and insisting that she is just writing books like she always has.
New York City mayor Bill deBlasio promised on Saturday that police would investigate the allegations as soon as they receive a complaint. Carroll, however, told Lawrence O’Donnell on Friday night that she had no interest in filing charges against Trump, explaining that she believed it was more important for people to focus attention on other women who are currently at risk, like the migrant women who have been caught up in the ongoing crisis at the southern U.S.
I would find it disrespectful to the women who are down on the border who are being raped around the clock down there without any protection. … Mine was three minutes; I’m a mature woman, I can handle it. I can keep going.
But even if Carroll did want to press charges, she would almost certainly not be able to. There is currently no statute of limitations for rape in New York, but the state law eliminating it has only been in effect since 2006 and does not apply to crimes committed before then. That means that Carroll’s window of opportunity to file charges against Trump, under the original law, ended five years after the alleged attack.
Speaking with Mother Jones, former Bronx sex crimes prosecutor Roger Canaff said that the assault Carroll describes clearly meets the definition of first degree rape under New York law, but explained that the Supreme Court has ruled that retroactive charges can’t be filed after a statute of limitation change. “The person has to be charged under the law as it existed at the time,” Canaff said. (It’s not clear if Mayor de Blasio is aware of that.)
Carroll kept the Donna Karan dress she was wearing when Trump raped her. She said she had hung it up in her closet after the attack and never washed or wore it again — until putting it on for the New York cover photoshoot. Carroll told the Washington Post that she has never considered testing the dress for DNA evidence. If she did, former sex crimes prosecutor Roger Canaff told Mother Jones that it was at least possible a test would find something:
If she still has the dress, then there’s a possibility that it has biological material on it. It can be examined and tested for that. DNA does degrade, but, you know, is it under plastic? It just totally depends on how she’s kept this dress and where it’s been. But testing is a lot more sophisticated now than it was even 20 years ago.
Senator Elizabeth Warren was the first Democratic candidate to comment on the allegations, and what she said was bleak. Asked by reporter on Friday to respond to Carroll’s story, Warren replied, “We know Donald Trump’s character, and it’s revealed every single day. There aren’t any real surprises here other than the details.”
Some have been suggesting that House Democrats should investigate the sexual assault allegations against Trump, since it is arguably the only thing Democrats can do about the allegations. Washington State governor Jay Inslee seemed reluctant to endorse that idea on Saturday, explaining that “you probably don’t need another thing to prove that this is a person who is deceptive, repeatedly, lies as a matter of habit, and is a backstabber, cork-screwer and dirty dealer par excellence.”
One major theme of the responses to Carroll’s story has been the respect and trust she’s earned from her readers and peers long before coming forward with these allegations:
Others have weighed in on Carroll’s writing or tried to put the story in context:
Another one of Trump’s accusers, Jill Harth, responded to story both to support Carroll, as well as note the similarity of their attacks:
And there has been a ranging debate on the coverage, and possible staying power, of Carroll’s allegations:
Trump partisans in the media have been either echoing the president’s response to the allegations or, as in the case of his GOP allies, ignoring them completely.
Some more open-minded conservatives have been engaging with Carroll’s story too, however. The Washington Examiner’s Philip Klein, who says he objects to reflexively believing women who accuse men of sexual misconduct, soberly advised Republicans to consider Carroll’s account carefully and seriously:
We should hear more from Carroll in the coming days and weeks, and the friends who confirm her account should come forward as well. If there are a lot of inconsistencies, this would be another case of major media malpractice. But if more reporting bolsters her account, this should be significant concern to Republicans, and all Americans.
The Examiner’s Madeline Fry was even more diplomatic:
As much as #MeToo is a political issue, and accusing the president of rape is a political claim, Carroll’s account of a life full of abuse has social implications. Before #MeToo got muddled by conflating harassment with assault and the oversimple tag line “believe women,” the movement had a good sort of momentum. Its goal was to help women like Carroll.
In addressing Carroll’s claims, it’s important to remember that she has a right to be heard, and whether or not her accusations are all completely true, women like her have suffered similar experiences in silence. #MeToo may have devolved from its origins, and false sexual assault claims (while difficult to maintain) still exist. But if Carroll’s life is any implication, there are many women who are afraid to share the harrowing stories in their past, and there are many men who still have to be held accountable for their actions.
At the Washington Post, George Conway, the lawyer who represented Paula Jones in her sexual harassment lawsuit against former president Bill Clinton, asserted that, “Republicans or conservatives who promoted [Juanita Broaddrick’s rape allegations against Bill Clinton] would be hypocritical if they fail to champion Carroll and condemn Trump.” Conway, who is married to Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway and is a regular critic of the president, also compared the cases:
Trump called Broaddrick “courageous,” and if Broaddrick was courageous, then certainly Carroll is as well. For Carroll’s story is at least as compelling as Broaddrick’s — if not more so. And that is because Carroll’s claim, for a number of reasons, actually rests upon a significantly stronger foundation than Broaddrick’s.
The GOP callout from the National Review’s David French was far blunter:
The Examiner’s Kaylee McGee, on the other hand, confessed that her ability to believe Carroll was influenced by her belief that allegations of sexual assault are too often treated as a political commodities. Through that lens, she suggested, the delay and timing of Carroll’s disclosure was suspicious.
But over at Hot Air, conservative blogger Allahpundit zeroed in on the importance of Carroll’s friends being able to offer contemporaneous corroboration:
If Carroll fabricated the story 20+ years ago but never repeated the lie to anyone except a pair of friends in confidence, what was her supposed motive? She hasn’t sued Trump. She didn’t even reveal this during the campaign, when it might have hurt him. What did she gain by this alleged lie?
He also appreciated her acknowledgement of ambiguities:
Carroll’s admission that she was laughing for at least part of this struck me as something that a fabricator would be unlikely to invent, precisely because it creates some ambiguity about whether her attacker thought she was receptive to his advance or even about whether the “attack” was as forceful as she’s claiming. … [A] pure fabrication wouldn’t need to include a detail like that; it smacks of something that a victim would include because it really did happen and she’s intent on giving you her recollection as fully as she can, even the parts that might encourage a skeptic.
In a tweet responding to Carroll’s allegations, political science professor Rick Hasen noted that, “if this were any other President these allegations would be front page news for days, would certainly lead to a congressional investigation, and potential resignation or removal from office.”
Instead, the president rose to power despite his many credible accusers and having bragged about how easily he could force himself on women. In this context, Carroll’s story has provoked more resignation than optimism.
For Washington Post columnist Alyssa Rosenberg, Carroll’s piece triggered a devastating epiphany about Trump and the limits of #MeToo:
Nothing will happen to hold Trump accountable for his alleged treatment of women, not during his presidency and not after. The reality-distortion field that Trump emits, and that his most ardent supporters have embraced, provides him with a grant of immunity so powerful that it has come to seem irrevocable and impenetrable. Of course I haven’t wanted to say this out loud. The only possible response is despair.
Trump’s most ardent supporters won’t find this story horrifying, because they won’t believe it at all. If they do accept any part of it, they’ll insist that the encounter was consensual; that Carroll was a pathetic 52-year-old woman throwing herself at a “good-looking,” slightly younger gazillionaire; that any contact Trump had with her was some sort of sexual philanthropy.
This is what makes Trump different from the other powerful men who have fallen since #MeToo became a global movement: He has convinced too many people to invest too deeply in him and to view him as the sole source of truth for him to be disgraced and banished. …
[As long as there is no way to hold him accountable,] Trump’s legacy will be proof that when you’re a star, the world does let you do it. Even if women like E. Jean Carroll fight back, even if millions of us read their stories and find them credible, you can do anything.
Furthermore, per some preliminary data:
Molly Jong Fast shared some like-minded pessimism in a piece at the Daily Beast:
Who could forget the photo of a female Trump supporter wearing the “Trump can grab my pussy” T-shirt? And it’s not like the president’s favorite television station will hold him accountable. Fox News anchor Sean Hannity has continuously defended Trump no matter what the allegation.
And then there are the evangelicals who seem completely committed to Trumpism despite the cost or the evidence that the Almighty might not be besties with the thrice-married adulterer.
She adds that she wants Republicans to fight for Carroll, but is certain they won’t — so there is only one solution:
[I]f the 2018 midterms have taught us anything, it’s that women remember. We may never see the president impeached and removed from office but we can remove him ourselves on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, when we women go to the polls and show Republican politicians that character does in fact matter and that we believe women.
But Vox’s Anna North emphasized that for all the doom and gloom, we haven’t seen the end of these stories — or their possible impact — either:
We haven’t yet reached the point in America where a woman’s word is necessarily treated as equal to a powerful man’s. But we have reached a point where when one woman speaks out, many often rise up to join her.
So while it might indeed have been extremely risky for Carroll to speak publicly about her experience in 1995, it’s much less risky in 2019.
Trump can call her a liar (indeed, he already has), but that response starts to ring more hollow the more frequently you use it. He can sic his lawyers on her, but they’re already fighting [another woman who has accused him of sexual assault, Summer] Zervos — and they’re losing.