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Trump faces another big legal loss in the E. Jean Carroll case

Trump’s legal losses could eventually cost him literally — and politically.

E. Jean Carroll, in sunglasses, a brown leather jacket, and white skirt, smiles as she leaves the courthouse accompanied by lawyers.
Writer E. Jean Carroll leaves a Manhattan courthouse in May after a jury found former President Donald Trump liable for sexually abusing her.
Spencer Platt/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.

A federal judge has found former President Donald Trump liable for defaming writer E. Jean Carroll after he claimed she was a liar following allegations that he raped her in the 1990s.

Judge Lewis Kaplan’s decision means that an upcoming civil trial in the case will simply determine how much Trump owes Carroll in damages, rather than focusing on his liability. It’s the second time Trump has been found liable for defamation after a jury came to the same conclusion earlier this year. Kaplan concluded that since that jury found Trump liable for sexually abusing Carroll, the question of whether his claims about her fabricating the incident constituted defamation had been settled, negating the need for another trial on the matter.

It’s a big civil legal loss for Trump, and comes as he faces four criminal indictments, as well as several other civil lawsuits, including ones alleging business fraud and that he led a pyramid scheme.

In the short term, Trump’s loss in his case with Carroll will probably have little effect, other than on his finances. Thus far, his popularity among Republican primary voters has only grown as his legal issues have worsened. But should he become the GOP’s presidential nominee, the Carroll decision — and his other legal baggage — could limit the support he gets from swing voters while energizing the Democratic voters opposed to his mistreatment of women.

More broadly, Trump’s many lawsuits are a distraction that could affect his ability to campaign, and some have been a drain on resources: His political action committee, for example, is almost broke due, in part, to many of the legal fees it’s had to cover.

As his legal issues pile up, they will continue to have an effect on his bottom line, give his Democratic opponents plenty of material for attack ads, and could put a limit on the backing he sees in the general election.

How these lawsuits could hurt Trump

As a FiveThirtyEight polling aggregator shows, Trump’s standing in Republican primary polls hasn’t declined much despite the growing onslaught of lawsuits and indictments he faces. As of early September, he had 53 percent support among Republican primary voters, far surpassing that of the 16 percent held by runner-up Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Additionally, as NPR reports, Trump’s support has actually seen a GOP polling uptick following some of the criminal indictments, as he’s claimed that he’s being politically persecuted.

As historian Thomas Weber told my colleague Nicole Narea, when it comes to his lawsuits, Trump is “using — kind of brilliantly, in a moral-free way — the language of victimization to get support behind him, and also very cleverly always says, ‘This is not just about me,’ but presents himself as the embodiment of the American people, of the underprivileged.” His strategy has led to a “rally around the flag” effect among his supporters, and has effectively neutralized the primary campaigns of his rivals.

[Related: Why Trump seems to grow more popular the worse his legal troubles become]

Beyond the Republican primary, however, Trump could see more political fallout from these lawsuits among swing voters. In 2020, a number of swing voters moved away from Trump, a trend that helped cost him the election. In 2016, for example, Trump won 46 percent of independent voters, and in 2020, he won 41 percent, according to exit polls. Similarly, Trump won 40 percent of voters who identified as moderate in 2016, and just 34 percent in 2020. That trend could continue next year as these lawsuits exacerbate the baggage that Trump already had.

According to an August ABC News/Ipsos poll, 67 percent and 64 percent of swing voters find the charges in the federal January 6 indictment, and the Georgia indictment, respectively, to be serious. And specifically in relation to the Carroll case, 65 percent of women and 61 percent of independents in a May Yahoo/YouGov poll said Trump should not serve as president again if he was found liable for raping Carroll. (While a jury did not find him liable for rape, they did find him liable for sexual abuse.) An August AP poll also found that while 74 percent of Republicans said they would back him in the 2024 general election, 53 percent of all respondents said they would not vote for him in the general election.

Because of some of these concerns, other GOP candidates — including DeSantis — have focused on whether Trump will be an electable candidate in the general election. “You have basically three people at this point that are credible in this whole thing,” DeSantis said in May. “Biden, Trump, and me. And I think of those three, two have a chance to get elected president — Biden and me, based on all the data in the swing states.”

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