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The lawsuit accusing Trump of raping a 13-year-old girl, explained

The anonymous plaintiff dropped her lawsuit against Trump, the circumstances around which have been bizarre.

Donald Trump Campaigns Across Florida Ahead Of Election Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Fifteen women have now gone on record to say that Donald Trump sexually assaulted them. Out of all of their stories, one is the most explosive and bizarre — a woman who says Trump violently raped her at an orgy when she was just 13 years old. But the horrific details of her accusation have gotten the least attention.

It seemed like that was all going to change Wednesday, when the woman, who has gone by the pseudonyms “Katie Johnson” and “Jane Doe,” was set to appear at a press conference at the law offices of Lisa Bloom, a high-profile civil rights attorney and TV commentator. But the woman didn’t come to the press conference. Bloom told a room full of waiting reporters that Johnson was afraid to show her face after receiving multiple death threats, and that they would have to reschedule.

Then on Friday, Bloom announced that Johnson had dropped her lawsuit:

It’s not uncommon for victims of sexual assault to want to preserve their anonymity, and dropping a lawsuit doesn’t mean admitting that the case had no merit. Jill Harth, who sued Trump for sexual assault in 1997, still stands by her claims even though she dropped the lawsuit. And it would indeed have been an intense couple of days for Johnson — Bloom said that her firm’s website was hacked, that Anonymous had claimed responsibility, and that death threats and a bomb threat came in afterwards.

It was the end of an incredibly strange case that featured an anonymous plaintiff who had refused almost all requests for interviews, two anonymous corroborating witnesses whom no one in the press had spoken to, and a couple of seriously shady characters — with an anti-Trump agenda and a penchant for drama — who had aggressively shopped the story around to media outlets for over a year.

Those shady characters — a former reality TV producer who calls himself “Al Taylor” and a “Never Trump” conservative activist named Steve Baer — had been mostly unsuccessful in getting the media to bite. There are a few very good reasons for that, which the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim succinctly summed up: Taylor and Baer have been really sketchy about the whole thing, and since the accuser is anonymous, journalists can’t do anything to verify her claims. The only journalist who has actually interviewed Johnson, Emily Shugerman at Revelist, came away confused and even doubting whether Johnson really exists.

Since a tape of Trump bragging about sexual assault came out in early October, a dozen named women have come forward with credible, similar-sounding allegations of Trump forcibly kissing or groping them in exactly the way he described on that tape. Johnson’s case was an outlier, with far more salacious allegations from a source that seems far less credible.

But Trump was still scheduled to answer those allegations in front of a judge on December 16. Now that’s not going to happen. And we may never learn anything more about the matter, unless and until Johnson decides to break her silence.

The lawsuit made horrifying allegations against both Trump and celebrity pedophile Jeffrey Epstein

Donald Trump Campaigns In Jacksonville, Florida Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Johnson claimed that Trump violently raped her when she was 13 at a 1994 orgy hosted by Jeffrey Epstein — the billionaire who was convicted in 2008 of soliciting an underage girl for prostitution and has been accused of having sex with more than 30 underage girls.

Johnson’s lawsuit mentioned Trump’s friendship with Epstein, and a comment Trump made in 2002 about their respective tastes in women: “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side.”

The lawsuit alleged a number of charges against both Trump and Epstein, including rape, sexual abuse, assault and battery, and false imprisonment. Johnson said that when she was 13, Epstein lured her to parties at his apartment by promising “money and a modeling career.”

Johnson said Trump had sexual contact with her at four of those parties, including tying her to a bed and violently raping her in a “savage sexual attack.” The lawsuit said Johnson “loudly pleaded” with Trump to stop, but that he responded by “violently striking Plaintiff in the face with his open hand and screaming that he would do whatever he wanted.”

After that, Trump allegedly threatened to harm or kill Johnson and her family if she ever told anyone. Johnson said Trump told her he could make them “disappear” like Maria — a 12-year-old girl Johnson says Trump also forced her to have sexual contact with, and whom Johnson hadn’t seen since that encounter.

Johnson also accused Epstein of raping her “anally and vaginally despite her loud pleas to stop,” and that he “attempted to strike Plaintiff about the head with his closed fists while he angrily screamed that he, Defendant Epstein, rather than Defendant Trump, should have been the one who took Plaintiff’s virginity.”

The court filings also included a statement from “Tiffany Doe,” another anonymous woman, who said that she witnessed the rapes and procured the young girls for the parties, and “Joan Doe,” a classmate of the victim who said she was told about the rapes during the following school year. Tiffany Doe said that Epstein and Trump knew that Johnson was 13.

An earlier lawsuit Johnson filed against Trump was somewhat fishy

The lawsuit Johnson filed in New York was actually her second attempt to sue Trump and Epstein. The first was in California in April of this year, a claim Johnson filed herself that got thrown out on technical grounds — she’d filed a civil rights suit, but failed to actually state an applicable civil rights claim.

There were a couple of odd things about that lawsuit. The address listed on court documents as Johnson’s was actually a foreclosed, abandoned home, and the phone number was disconnected. Maybe Johnson was just using a fake address because she was homeless; she was, after all, also described as being indigent. But it’s fishy.

The lawsuit also described details that were so lurid — “almost cinematic in their depravity,” as Jezebel’s Anna Merlan put it — that they’re almost hard to believe. Some of those details were omitted from the second lawsuit, the New York Daily News reported:

Gone from the new lawsuit is an allegation that Trump threw money at the plaintiff for an abortion when she expressed fear about getting pregnant after being raped. Gone, too, is the allegation that Trump called co-defendant and accused pedophile and sex party host Jeffrey Epstein a “Jew bastard,” and her request for $100 million in damages.

But the details that remain in the second lawsuit — filed with the help of New Jersey patent attorney Thomas Meagher, who says he volunteered to take the case after reading about it — are still shocking.

“The allegations are not only categorically false, but disgusting at the highest level and clearly framed to solicit media attention or, perhaps, are simply politically motivated,” Trump told RadarOnline in April, after the first lawsuit was filed. “There is absolutely no merit to these allegations. Period.”

Johnson’s case has been promoted to the media in truly bizarre, suspicious ways

This spring, a man called “Al Taylor” sent a video of a woman with a blurred face and blonde wig (allegedly Johnson) recounting the allegations against Trump to news outlets, saying he wanted $1 million for it. Taylor, the Guardian reported, was actually Norm Lubow, a former producer on the Jerry Springer show who has a history of using fake names and disguises to make juicy, false claims about celebrities.

The lawsuit was promoted to the media by an anti-Trump, anti-abortion activist named Steve Baer, a conservative activist and donor with a very influential email list that he uses to relentlessly spam reporters and conservative power players. Baer, too, has a history of passing around “whoa if true” rumors: Last year, he was a key figure in spreading the notion that US Rep. Kevin McCarthy was having an extramarital affair with a woman in Congress when McCarthy was a candidate to become speaker of the House.

Baer told Emily Shugerman at Revelist that Taylor met Johnson at a party and asked her if she had any good celebrity gossip. When she talked about her assault, Taylor apparently didn’t want to touch the story at first, but then circled back with Johnson about it once Trump’s campaign started picking up steam.

To hear journalists who interacted with them tell it, Baer and Taylor come off as obnoxiously persistent in pushing the story, and infuriatingly evasive when asked for interviews with Johnson. Jezebel’s Anna Merlan published a long account of their bizarre antics.

Taylor in particular comes across as volatile and a little scary; Merlan reported that Taylor told her to “suck my dick” when she confronted him about his identity, and that he made harassing phone calls to other journalists. He also appears to have sent at least a few text messages and emails while posing as Katie Johnson — or at least messages that Meagher, Johnson’s attorney, denies that Johnson sent.

The Daily Beast’s Brandy Zadrozny also has a colorful story about the time Baer and Johnson had an epic public meltdown at each other — over Baer’s email list, cc’ing journalists all the way.

In short, these guys are a trainwreck. But they’ve basically been the public face of Katie Johnson for the last year.

Again, Revelist’s Emily Shugerman is the only journalist who has managed to interview Johnson. She says Meagher offered her the chance to interview Johnson over FaceTime from his office in Princeton, New Jersey. But Johnson apparently decided she didn’t want to do it after all, and the interview was canceled.

Three days later, close to midnight, Shugerman finally talked to Johnson over the phone in a conference call with Meagher. There were some odd things about that call, Shugerman writes:

Johnson's voice sounded muffled and far away when she answered — she said she was speaking softly because she didn’t want anyone to overhear her. Several times she paused mid-sentence, and I could hear her moving something.

"She has dogs," Meagher explained.

Shugerman says Johnson was “vague” in her descriptions of Epstein’s parties and how many people were there, and wouldn’t go into details about what she was asked to do. Some of the details she did give were consistent with descriptions of Epstein and his house Vicky Ward listed in a 2003 Vanity Fair profile — which could either lend credence to Johnson’s story, or suggest that “Johnson” just read the Vanity Fair story as research.

Most troublingly, a detective who worked with Epstein’s victims called into question a key part of Johnson’s story:

Hearing her answers that night, I had to remind myself that PTSD from sexual trauma is known to damage victims' memories — and that the parties she recalled allegedly happened more than two decades ago. But Mike Fisten, a retired Miami-Dade detective who conducted research for several of Epstein's victims, denied such parties ever even took place.

"Jeffery never had parties like described in their complaint," Fisten told me. "Jeffery had sex parties, for sure, with two or three girls … but never with other guys."

There were men in attendance at Epstein’s more large, lavish affairs, Fisten said, but nothing illicit ever happened at such events.

Meagher, Shugerman wrote, is eager to put the focus back on the alleged rape of a 13-year-old instead of focusing on the antics of Taylor and Baer. Anything else, Meagher told Shugerman, is "allowing the sins of others to be visited upon my client."

But until Johnson actually does break her silence in a bigger way, there are still a lot of questions yet to be answered.

“I don't know if the Katie Johnson I spoke to is the same girl who Trump allegedly raped in 1994, or if that girl even exists,” Shugerman concluded in her piece. “All I know is the reason why the woman I spoke to on July 11 chose to speak to me at all. ‘I just want to get justice,’ she told me. ‘I mean, these things happen to girls everywhere … I just want people to know.’”

Sexual assault has become an unexpected flashpoint in the 2016 election

Donald Trump And Mike Pence Hold Campaign Rally In Cleveland Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The leaked tape that featured Trump bragging about committing sexual assault, and the dozen women who came forward to allege that Trump actually did this, was a massive bombshell in the presidential campaign. Trump was already well-known for his many sexist insults and degrading misogynistic remarks, which Hillary Clinton was always quick to remind voters of on the campaign trail.

But Trump’s own words about groping women, and the alleged deeds they corresponded to, were on another level. While none of the allegations against Trump have been proven in court, most of them have been reported by credible journalistic outlets, including interviews with corroborating witnesses who say they heard the accusers’ stories firsthand after they happened.

And Clinton hasn’t shied away from using these stories as campaign fodder. Michelle Obama gave a powerful speech condemning Trump’s alleged actions, and the Clinton campaign just released a brutal attack ad claiming that Trump really did what he said he did on the infamous “grab ‘em by the pussy” tape.

But the Clinton campaign hasn’t touched Johnson’s allegation, and with good reason. It’s true that the allegation is explosive, and could make voters see Trump’s many disturbing comments about young girls over the years in a new light. But it’s also very dubious and uncertain, and there’s no real need to promote a case like that when a dozen women have come forward with much more credible stories, using their own names and making themselves available to reporters for scrutiny.

Trump has denied all of the charges against him. But he’s also tried to attack Hillary Clinton by parading around several women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct, and arguing that there’s a double standard in attacking Trump on those grounds without also attacking Bill.

Some of the allegations against Bill Clinton are more credible than others. But by making those allegations an issue at all, Trump makes himself more vulnerable to attacks based on allegations about his own behavior — even sketchier claims like Johnson’s.

Libby Nelson contributed reporting to this piece.

Correction 7/11/19: Corrected to reflect the original publication date of the Vanity Fair article on Epstein.