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Donald Trump's civil rape case goes to trial in Manhattan

Writer E. Jean Carroll (center) arrives at Manhattan federal court on the first day of her defamation case against former President Donald Trump. She's accused him of raping her in a department store dressing room in the 1990s.
Timothy A. Clary
AFP via Getty Images
Writer E. Jean Carroll (center) arrives at Manhattan federal court on the first day of her defamation case against former President Donald Trump. She's accused him of raping her in a department store dressing room in the 1990s.

NEW YORK — Lawyers for former President Donald Trump and E. Jean Carroll, the woman who has accused him of raping her in an upscale Manhattan department store in the mid 1990s, presented diametrically opposing accounts of what did or did not happen to a jury on Tuesday, the first day of trial in Carroll's civil suit against Trump.

Carroll's attorney, Shawn Crowley, began her opening presentation by vividly recounting the story at the core of Carroll's allegations. Crowley described Trump locking Carroll inside a changing room, and forcing her into sexual intercourse, even as she resisted. Crowley said now, nearly three decades later, Carroll is trying to hold Trump accountable for what he did to her in that dressing room and to "restore her good name."

There is no video or forensic evidence to support Carroll's rape claim, and Carroll is not even certain whether the assault took place in 1995 or 1996. But Crowley told jurors this is not a "he-said, she-said" case, because Carroll's allegations will be supported by the testimony of two friends of Carroll's whom she told shortly after the alleged assault, with key details being backed up by two witnesses who worked at Bergdorf Goodman's.

In his opening statement, Trump lawyer Joseph Tacopina attacked every element of the allegations, starting with Carroll's character, saying she was motivated by money and fame. "You cannot let her profit from her abuse of this process and her attempts to deceive you," Tacopina said, adding that her allegations undermine "real rape victims." He said Carroll's inability to remember the month or even the year of the alleged assault makes it impossible for Trump to provide an alibi.

Trump is accused of battery and defamation in this suit, which was filed late last year. Carroll has a separate civil suit against Trump for defamation only, which has not gone to trial.

The jury in the case is anonymous, for security reasons. The six men and three women will be known only by numbers assigned to them, and will arrive and leave every day by car, and be let out at undisclosed drop-off points.

Most of Tuesday morning was taken up by jury selection. But even before prospective jurors were questioned, New York federal district court Judge Lewis Kaplan bluntly admonished both legal teams to advise their clients and witnesses to avoid making statements that "are likely to incite violence or civil unrest," and warned against "making comments or engaging in conduct that has the potential to jeopardize the safety or wellbeing of any individuals or the rule of law, particularly as it applies to proceedings in this courtroom."

Trump has been known to attack judges and lawyers, and Carroll herself, on social media.

In addition to Carroll's friends and the former Bergdorf's staffers, Carroll's lawyers say they will call to the stand two women who say Trump made aggressive and unwanted sexual advances, Natasha Stoynoff and Jessica Leeds. They will also present excerpts from the "Access Hollywood" video in which Trump boasts about his sexual conquests, in vulgar terms.

At the time it was released, Trump dismissed the tape as "locker room talk," And Trump attorney Tacopina told jurors that's what it was: "it's not an admission of anything certainly," he said.

Tacopina is not saying whether Trump will take the stand in his defense; if he does not, then the defense team has only one witness, Dr. Edgar Nace, a psychiatrist.

While Crowley kept a calm demeanor as she laid out Carroll's claims, Tacopina at times appeared to be genuinely angry, his hands gripping the lectern and his voice rising.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ilya Marritz