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The danger of Trump’s ugly attacks on E. Jean Carroll

They reaffirm his mistreatment of women and complete disregard for the legal system.

Then-President Donald Trump walks toward Marine One as he departs the White House on October 15, 2020, in Washington, DC. 
Former US President Donald Trump participated in a CNN town hall on Wednesday.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

At a Wednesday CNN town hall, former President Donald Trump had his first major appearance since he was found liable for the sexual abuse of writer E. Jean Carroll earlier this week. During it, he opted to take the same approach he’s always taken to allegations of sexual misconduct: denying it and mocking the accuser.

“I have no idea who the hell she is,” he said, referring to Carroll as a “whack job.” The comments were notable given Trump was found not just liable for sexual abuse, but defamation as well. His willingness to continue smearing Carroll despite that defamation verdict echoes how he’s treated women, and how he’s approached legal issues both during and after his presidency. It’s also a reminder that, if elected president, Trump will continue to act as though the law does not apply to him, regardless of the political or policy consequences of that approach.

The dangers of Trump’s disregard for the law were on display elsewhere in the town hall as well. In addition to his statements about Carroll, Trump suggested he’d undermine the legal system if reelected by committing to pardoning January 6 insurrectionists. He also continued his assault on democracy by repeating false claims about election fraud and emphasizing that Vice President Mike Pence should have done more to overturn the 2020 election results. Broadly, the event gave him a forum to continue peddling lies in front of a relatively friendly audience, and to minimize any legal consequences he and his followers have faced.

Much of the rhetoric was unsurprising coming from Trump and a continuation of stances he’s long embraced. His words, however, were striking for demonstrating how little the maelstrom of state and federal investigations, in addition to the Carroll verdict, have affected his outlook, despite jurors in multiple cases now affirming concerns about his behavior. These statements directly speak to how he’d serve in a second term: as a president who isn’t accountable to any checks on his actions.

Trump is still framing himself as above the law. Jurors disagree.

For years, Trump has denied more than 20 allegations of sexual misconduct, and often attacked the women who’ve made them. And while it won’t change how he approaches the issue or how his supporters perceive it, the Carroll verdict offers Trump’s opponents a direct counterpoint to his claims that he isn’t liable for anything. Although the jury did not find Trump liable for rape, they did find him liable for sexual abuse, which is defined as “subjecting a person to sexual contact without consent,” according to the New York Times.

Carroll spoke to the significance of this verdict and the need for accountability in these cases in a statement after the trial. “I filed this lawsuit against Donald Trump to clear my name and to get my life back,” she said in a statement. “Today, the world finally knows the truth. This victory is not just for me but for every woman who has suffered because she was not believed.”

It’s notable that even as Trump is continuing to denigrate Carroll and other allegations he’s faced, a panel of nine federal jurors is on record disagreeing with him. That’s a decision that could have electoral impact too: While Trump’s base is deeply loyal and unlikely to be swayed by such developments, as evidenced by the town hall crowd’s warm response to his attacks against Carroll, swing voters — including many women — could be affected by them in the general election. In 2020, Biden outperformed Trump with women, according to exit polls, with 57 percent backing him and 42 percent backing his opponent.

In addition to the Carroll verdict, Trump is also facing other looming court cases which could further dilute any credible attempts to skirt legal responsibility with persuadable voters. In New York, he’s also been indicted by a grand jury for falsifying business records and is set to face a trial. In Georgia, he’s under investigation for trying to interfere in the state’s 2020 election results. And at the federal level, he’s under two investigations regarding classified documents and attempts to overturn the 2020 election outcome.

President Joe Biden seized on Trump’s many falsehoods in the town hall on Wednesday, asking voters in a tweet if they wanted “four more years of that.” It’s a framing Biden made successful use of in the 2020 election, when he cast himself as someone who could bring normalcy and a reverence for laws to Trump’s chaotic Washington. As much as Trump’s willingness to dismiss the legal system and undermine US institutions was a preview of a second term, it also put on display everything that distressed grassroots Democrats during Trump’s first term. Democrats are likely to continue to use Trump’s own words — and his looming legal issues — to turn out more of their own base in addition to making the case to voters in the middle who may also be tired of the drama.

As the town hall made clear, Trump’s penchant for discounting any allegations he faces and acting like he doesn’t bear any responsibility for these actions hasn’t disappeared. Additionally, many of his supporters will probably remain unfazed by court decisions. But he faces a difficult legal reality. It’s one that he and his supporters can continue to ignore, but there’s no guarantee all voters will do the same.