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E. Jean Carroll’s defamation lawsuit against Trump, explained

Carroll says Trump sexually assaulted her, then lied about it to the American people.

E. Jean Carroll stands in front of her house.
E. Jean Carroll at her home in Warwick, New York, on June 21, 2019.
Eva Deitch for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Lawyers for author and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll are demanding a DNA sample from President Trump.

Carroll wrote last year in New York magazine that Trump had sexually assaulted her in the 1990s, forcibly penetrating her in the dressing room of a Manhattan department store. Trump said he had never met Carroll, despite a photograph published in the same piece that showed the two together, and argued that she was accusing him to boost sales of her book.

In response, Carroll sued Trump for defamation.

“Each of these statements was false,” Carroll says in her lawsuit, filed in November 2019 with a New York court. “Each of them was defamatory.”

Carroll argues that Trump’s statements damaged her reputation, and is seeking a retraction as well as punitive damages. She also says she wants the president to face justice for his words, if not for his actions.

“While I can no longer hold Donald Trump accountable for assaulting me more than 20 years ago, I can hold him accountable for lying about it and I fully intend to do so,” Carroll said in a statement to media at the time.

As part of the suit, Carroll is now seeking a DNA sample to compare with DNA from skin cells found on a dress that Carroll says she was wearing when the assault occurred. “Unidentified male DNA on the dress could prove that Donald Trump not only knows who I am, but also that he violently assaulted me in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman and then defamed me by lying about it and impugning my character,” Carroll said in a statement Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

The advice columnist is one of at least 22 women who say Trump has sexually harassed, assaulted, or otherwise violated them. Trump has denied all these allegations, calling all the women liars. And Carroll is not the first to push back by suing — Summer Zervos, a former Apprentice contestant, filed a defamation suit against Trump in 2017, also arguing that Trump had damaged her reputation by calling her a liar. Phone records released as part of that case showed that Trump called Zervos on his cellphone around the same time she says he sexually assaulted her, according to the Washington Post.

Insulting the women who come forward with allegations against him has been part of Trump’s playbook since before his presidency began. While Carroll’s and Zervos’s lawsuits may not be as high-profile as Trump’s impeachment, these suits could have an impact on Trump’s bid for reelection.

Trump called Carroll a liar. Now she’s suing him.

Carroll’s allegation against Trump first became public in June, when she wrote in New York magazine that in 1995 or 1996, Trump had assaulted her after they ran into each other at a Bergdorf Goodman department store. The encounter began playfully, she wrote, with Trump asking her to try on lingerie for him, and her telling him that maybe he should do so instead. But when she agreed to go with him to a dressing room, she said, that changed.

“He lunges at me, pushes me against the wall, hitting my head quite badly, and puts his mouth against my lips,” Carroll wrote. Then, she wrote, he forcefully penetrated her with his penis before she was able to escape.

Trump responded to the allegation by saying that Carroll was lying, and was just trying to sell copies of her upcoming book, from which the New York magazine story was an excerpt, as Jan Ransom reports at the New York Times. He also said he had never met Carroll, even though the New York magazine story included a photograph of the two of them together.

And he said the advice columnist was “not my type,” a response he’s employed several times to denigrate women who accuse him of sexual misconduct.

“Trump knew that these statements were false,” Carroll says in her suit. “At a bare minimum, he acted with reckless disregard for their truth or falsity.”

In the suit, Carroll argues that Trump’s comments caused her emotional pain, reputational damage, and “substantial professional harm.”

“Carroll filed this lawsuit to obtain redress for those injuries and to demonstrate that even a man as powerful as Trump can be held accountable under the law,” the suit states.

Trump responded by trying to get the lawsuit thrown out, arguing that New York courts did not have jurisdiction over the case because he does not live in the state. But in January, Justice Doris Ling-Cohan of the State Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled against him. According to the New York Times, the judge wrote that Trump had provided nothing, “not even a tweet,” in support of his motion, only a statement from his attorney that “the President of the United States has resided in the White House for the past three years.”

“We look forward to moving ahead in this case and proving that Donald Trump lied when he told the world that he did not rape our client and had not even met her,” Carroll’s lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, said in a statement in response to the decision.

Then, on Thursday, Carroll’s legal team sent Trump a notice to submit a DNA sample, the AP reports. Carroll wrote in New York magazine that she had worn a particular black coatdress on the day that Trump assaulted her, and that she hadn’t worn it since. She put it back on, though, for a photo shoot to accompany the story.

Now her lawyers have had the dress tested, finding skin cells from at least four people, at least one of them male. Several of the people were involved in the New York magazine photo shoot, the AP reports. But now Carroll’s team wants to find out if any of the unidentified cells belong to Trump.

The president has not responded to the notice, according to the AP, though a court could potentially step in and compel him to provide DNA.

As the AP notes, this isn’t the first time a president has faced questions about DNA on a dress. After President Clinton’s DNA was found to match a sample on a dress belonging to former White House intern Monica Lewinsky, he admitted to having a relationship with her.

Clinton was eventually impeached over his statements about Lewinsky. Of course, Trump has already been impeached, and the inquiry has nothing to do with Carroll’s suit. But that doesn’t mean the suit won’t have an impact.

Her lawsuit could keep the allegations against him in the public eye leading up to 2020

Carroll joins Summer Zervos in filing a defamation suit against Trump for insults levied after an allegation of sexual misconduct. Zervos says that Trump sexually assaulted her in 2007, kissing her without her consent, touching her breast, and pressing his genitals against her when she met him for a meal at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She spoke out publicly in 2016, after the Access Hollywood tape was released showing Trump bragging about his ability to grab women “by the pussy.”

But after Zervos and others came forward with allegations, Trump said “every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign.” He also specifically denied Zervos’s allegation, and his campaign released a statement by her cousin arguing that she had made it for personal gain.

Zervos sued Trump for defamation in 2017 and her case has been working its way through the courts ever since. In November, phone records released as part of the case showed that Trump called Zervos on his cellphone around the time she says he sexually assaulted her, the Post reported.

Trump had previously said of Zervos that he “never met her at a hotel or greeted her inappropriately a decade ago.” But Trump’s private calendar, also released in the case, shows that he checked into the Beverly Hills Hotel on December 21, 2007. His phone records also show a 3-minute phone call he made to Zervos that day.

Zervos’s lawyer Mariann Wang told the Post in November the records corroborated Zervos’s account “with a degree of precision that [Zervos] could not have known were she not telling the truth about those interactions.” Trump’s legal team, meanwhile, released a statement saying that the fact that Trump “may have had several phone calls with Ms. Zervos” did not corroborate her allegations, and that Zervos “was pestering Mr. Trump for a job.”

For a time, some believed the discovery process in the Zervos case could lead to Trump’s impeachment. But Zervos’s suit and the more than 20 sexual misconduct allegations against Trump faded from public view somewhat amid the impeachment inquiry dealing with his alleged attempts to pressure Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden.

Carroll’s suit could bring those allegations back to the fore, at least to some degree. It also means Trump will potentially be tied up in not one but two lawsuits having to do with sexual misconduct allegations leading up to his 2020 reelection campaign.

Of course, many women had already come forward with allegations against Trump by November 2016 — and yet he was voted into office anyway. It’s not clear if things will be different this time.

But one thing is clear: Carroll is not going to let Americans forget about her story. “I am filing this on behalf of every woman who has ever been harassed, assaulted, silenced, or spoken up only to be shamed, fired, ridiculed, and belittled,” Carroll said in her November statement. “No person in this country should be above the law — including the president.”

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