Fifteen Minutes of Feminism

Fifteen Minutes of Feminism—The Trump Indictments: Unpacking the E. Jean Carroll Litigation (with Moira Donegan)


May 15, 2023

With Guests:

  • Moira Donegan. Moira Donegan is a feminist writer and current opinion columnist with the Guardian U.S.

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In this Episode:

This week, we’re launching a special new series following the litigation and criminal charges that have been levied at the former president Donald Trump: The Trump Indictments. Last week, a New York jury ruled that columnist E. Jean Carroll was sexually assaulted and defamed by the former president, and awarded her five million dollars in damages.

This case is also far from the only litigation faced by the former president—Trump is also the subject of several ongoing investigations, including one case dealing with his 2016 hush-money scheme for which he was indicted last month, a federal investigation into his role in the January 6 insurrection, and more. This week, we dive into the Carroll verdict, and its implications for the larger case against former president Trump.

Background reading:


00:00:00 Michele Goodwin: 

Welcome to Fifteen Minutes of Feminism, part of our On the Issues with Michele Goodwin at Ms. Magazine platform. As you know, we report, rebel, and we tell it just like it is, and on Fifteen Minutes of Feminism we count the minutes in our own feminist terms. 

You’re joining us as we launch a special new series that follows the litigation and criminal charges that have been levied at the former president Donald Trump. Recently columnist E. Jean Carroll was able to secure a jury verdict that the former president had in fact sexually assaulted her and defamed her. She was awarded five million dollars by a New York jury. 

This was the first time that the former president was actually found guilty of sexual assault despite the fact that there are many women who’ve come forward, including in this case as witnesses who have said that Donald Trump sexually assaulted them. 

For many people this is a lawsuit that was a vindication, and for many people it’s a vindication because they believe that the president who secured the 2016 election by soundly defeating Hillary Clinton by securing more electoral college votes in that election than she did, and many people who are still disturbed by that because just weeks before the election, Washington Post journalist David A. Fahrenthold broke a now-infamous story about a recording of Mr. Trump and former NBC Morning show host Billy Bush speaking casually about groping women and sexual assault. 

The recording taped by Access Hollywood in 2005 includes audio as well as some video footage. In the candid recording, Mr. Trump boasts that when you’re a star, women let you grab them by the genitalia, and in response Mr. Bush’s apparent surprise, he asks, “Whatever you want?” And Mr. Trump assures him, “They let you do it. You can do anything.”

And in the weeks that followed the release of the tapes, various women obtained lawyers, called reporters, wrote editorials. All of these women claim that the former president inappropriately and unlawfully touched them. Now this is before he was elected president and lawyers offered to provide free legal services to these women and any others who had similar experiences but were afraid to come forward in light of Mr. Trump’s denials about the alleged sexual harassment and threats to sue them. 

Well, in this episode Moira Donegan is going to help us unpack that New York City litigation. Now, it was a civil trial and not one that is criminal, but if you want to learn more and you want to follow the litigation, the criminal charges involving the former president, then be sure to make sure that you follow our show and that you follow this series, and I couldn’t be more pleased than to be joined by Moira Donegan, really one of the brightest reporters that there is reporting for The Guardian US. Sit back and take a listen. 

00:03:53 Michele Goodwin: 

Moira, thank you so very much for joining me as we unpack the various litigations involving the former president, Donald Trump. Today we’re talking about the jury in the civil case that found the former president Donald Trump to have sexually abused the magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll in a department store in the 1990s. Were you surprised at all by the jury’s finding?

00:04:27 Moira Donegan: 

You know, I was and I wasn’t. On the one hand, this was not a very ambiguous case. You know, Carroll did a wonderful job of establishing a real pattern of behavior. There is, of course, 26 women now who have publicly accused Donald Trump of some kind of sexual misconduct, and Carroll’s team called a pair of women who each had accusations over, you know, a course of decades of assaults by Donald Trump that were quite similar to what E. Jean Carroll has described and to what Donald Trump himself talked about in that infamous Access Hollywood tape. 

You know, Trump described, you know, picking a woman shopping. He described sort of abruptly lunging at these women and sexually assaulting them and that is indeed what two other witnesses also described. One woman who said that she was assaulted by Trump on an airplane in the 1970s and another, Natasha Stoynoff, a People Magazine contributor who claims she was assaulted by Trump when she was at Mar-a-Lago profiling him and his wife, and these are sort of you know, they demonstrated what Carroll’s team called his MO, a you know, a sort of habit, a grim routine if you will of these sexual assaults in semi-public places against women who he has had you know sort of minimal initial conversations with that, you know, involved in terms of blocking, you know, the abrupt kissing that he mentioned in the Access Hollywood tape and also of course the…you know, the…it’s disgusting to even say but you know that he grabbed these people by their genitals and that you know they were ____ 00:06:23.

00:06:22 Michele Goodwin: 

I know it is horrible to say, right. I mean, one almost feels dirty repeating exactly what he said and then later on saying right before the 2016 presidential election that this was no big deal, just locker room talk, well, let’s unpack what this case was about. So, what was it that was actually alleged in the litigation involving E. Jean Carroll against Donald Trump?

00:06:48 Moira Donegan: 

Yeah. So, E. Jean Carroll described this incident in her 2019 memoir in which she was in the 1990s coming, you know, after work she had come to Bergdorf Goodman to run an errand. 

It is a large, kind of upscale department store and they have a location in Midtown Manhattan really just around the corner from Trump Tower, and she said that as she was leaving the store she runs into Donald Trump, they get to talking, he asked her to help shop for a friend of his, and eventually leads her to the lingerie department where he sexually assaults her in a dressing room. 

She claims that he sort of cornered her, kissed her, grabbed her genitals and then raped her, and you know this is an account she has been very consistent with. She told some friends at the time, and you know the jury found that Donald Trump did sexually abuse her and, also, that he defamed her when he said she was lying about it. 

They did not find Trump liable for rape, which is, you know, sort of a little bit of a confounding ruling. I think we can maybe get into some of the vagaries of juries and some of the specifics of the law that may have led to that conclusion, but I do think it’s a very significant moment for the Me Too movement that Donald Trump has been found liable by a court of sexual abuse.

00:08:12 Michele Goodwin: 

And to your point, the jury found that Donald Trump was liable for defamation for calling the accusations a hoax and a lie. What’s your take on that?  

00:08:26 Moira Donegan: 

Well, you know, it’s pretty clear that the jury believed that something sexual and violent happened in that dressing room, right? They don’t…they don’t rule for defamation against somebody who you think is telling the truth, right? So, it was very unambiguous to me from ____) 00:08:45

00:08:45 Michele Goodwin: 

I mean, that’s pretty strong and like to your point. 

00:08:47 Moira Donegan:


00:08:48 Michele Goodwin:

I mean, it’s pretty strong…I mean, it’s of everything. It’s pretty compelling when a jury says that someone is liable for defamation and in this case specifically relating to Donald Trump saying that E. Jean Carroll was a liar and that she was just making this up.

00:09:12 Moira Donegan: 

Yeah, and it’s interesting because you know Donald Trump lies so habitually. It’s you know he lies as often as he speaks, and there has been, you know, kind of an imperviousness to the truth for Donald Trump, and I think that it’s really telling that he has a lie that has legal consequences, you know, consequences beyond him being known as a liar or disliked. This is something much more official and it’s meaningful.

00:09:42 Michele Goodwin: 

It’s the first time that Donald Trump has actually been found legally responsible for a sexual assault, which is something in and of itself that maybe one needs to reflect on in terms of Me Too. 

Like some people could say well, you know, maybe that’s a reflection that he never did anything wrong and that even though there have been dozens of women who’ve come forward, even though there have been witnesses that have said he would peek in looking at teenage girls as part of the competitions he would host, even though there are people who said he’d look in on women, you know, at these various other contests that he would host, even with the audio tape that as you discussed earlier where he says that he grabs women by the genitals and that they like it, they want it or that Hollywood…people in Hollywood can get away with it, that despite all of that, how significant is it do you think that this is actually the first time that he’s ever been found legally responsible for sexual assault?

00:10:44 Moira Donegan: 

Yeah. You know, you touch on something really important, which is that I think you know in these, in the backlash to Me Too and in sort of responses to a lot of feminist agitation around sexual harassment, sexual violence, you often hear this response as like, well, you know a court never ruled that that was true, and I think it’s a really sort of insidious standard. It’s this sort of moving of the goal post, right, because we know that in sexual violence cases in particular and in sexual harassment cases and other sort of like sexual misconduct civil matters, the reporting is absolutely minimal. 

Like these are not incidents that get reported to official channels. Women don’t go to cops and overwhelmingly they don’t go to HR, right? So, and when they do, also there are lower rates of arrest and conviction than for other kinds of violent crimes, right. Police don’t handle this well, broadly speaking and courts…prosecutors don’t bring these cases and juries often don’t convict for them. So, it’s a very _____ 00:11:49.

00:11:49 Michele Goodwin: 

And we know that there’s a big backlog just in terms of rape kits being processed.

00:11:54 Moira Donegan: 

Right. These signs of violence is just simply not a priority for law enforcement, right. So, the idea that a conviction or even like a civil liability is necessary to establish truth really places believability outside the reach of most women, more victims of this kind of misconduct, and so, I think it’s you know it’s not necessary to have a jury or any kind of court find somebody responsible in order to believe a woman who says that she was hurt. 

I think that that’s, you know, a dangerous precedent to say that you know we need this kind of official sanction in order to start to act to correct this, you know, cultural pathology we have around sexual abuse. However, courts are places of enormous authority. We have made them these arbiters of legal and illegal, right and wrong, belonging and non-belonging and that a court ruled in favor of Carroll’s claims, that they said no, this woman is right, it happened, it mattered, he doesn’t get to act like that. She deserved better. I think that’s a massive validation for the Me Too movement and for a lot of women who have had to live under the indignity of Trump’s presidency.

00:13:09 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, in fact that’s essentially what E. Jean Carroll’s lawyer said, that this was a victory that was not only Roberta Kaplan who has been a leader in bringing various cases within the context of Me Too and beyond for a very long time, Roberta Kaplan, and she’s the lawyer for E. Jean Carroll and she said in a statement that this is a victory not only for E. Jean Carroll but for democracy itself and all the survivors everywhere. 

I’m wondering what you think of the commentary about this is a victory for democracy. It makes me think a bit academically of the work of scholars who for a very long time have been talking about and writing about how sexual violence is that which is rooted in a power discourse, and you know even in the epilogue of my book, Policing the Womb, I devoted it to…which was published in 2020, I wrote about Donald Trump and the politics of power and the politics of sexual violence. So, I’m wondering what you think about that commentary about this is something that we ought to think about in terms of democracy and the body politic of our nation. 

00:14:24 Moira Donegan: 

Yeah. You know, I’ve also been sort of circling this question of what does it mean for women…women as citizens and for the citizenship of you know all of these people who are subjected to and vulnerable to sexual violence to have impunity for sexual violence be so widespread and also to have somebody who has, you know, by his own account habitually committed sexual violence be rewarded with power, right. 

I think that’s something that happened when, you know, Trump was running against somebody who was in 2016 somebody who was going to be the first woman president, that’s what we all thought, certainly what I thought at the time and that that was going to be a great, you know, sort of milestone for women’s citizenship, for their integration into the body politic, and instead somebody who has degraded women’s dignity, who has assaulted women’s bodily sovereignty, who has had contempt for the idea that women are his equals was rewarded with that seat of you know really unparalleled power and position. 

I think…I think it was a real blow to women’s citizenship and dignity and to have an official court now sanction his actions and to declare it…him responsible and to declare it wrong and to you know deliver this kind of accountability, I think it’s a first step in, you know, restoring that kind of dignity to American women.

00:15:55 Michele Goodwin: 

And you know, thinking about what this means for women and girls in our country as I think about this in relation to the Dobbs decision, let’s say, and Dobbs that decision that last year in June 24 the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, one of the things that I noted in that case was how many times Justice Alito who wrote the majority opinion referenced Blackstone and Hale, these were legal jurists who died centuries ago, who invested in the notion that women lack personhood, and this served as justification in their treatises that women should receive no recovery when being tortured by marital rape. 

Both wrote that there was no such thing as marital rape because women become one with their husbands and a man cannot rape himself. You look at the then centuries of jurisprudence involving horrific accounts of rape, even gang rape that women experienced with their husbands and no punishment because these treatises had power in American law, even though these were scholars that never lived in the United States. 

They died before the United States even became a country or even domestic violence.  _____ 00:17:18 think of rape and domestic violence as being part of the body politic that not dismantled really until the 1970s and ‘80s. I mean, marital rape was legal in the United States until the 1980s and even domestic violence, I mean, there are just so many cases involving going up to State Supreme Courts, where courts adjudicated that, you know, married women, there’s no such thing as domestic violence in their case and again referring back to these old treatises. 

So, as I think about this, this kind of the power of the politic, the power of law in instantiating the legitimacy of abuse against women and seeing then the manifestation of Trump with this. You know, one point that I want to share, and I’m sure you saw this is that on the day of the verdict Donald Trump went to social media, and on Truth Social in all caps wrote I have absolutely no idea who this woman is, even though there are photos of him in the presence of E. Jean Carroll.

00:18:30 Moira Donegan: 

Yeah, and I think that, you know, that was a moment that post on Truth Social of really symbolically just eliminating E. Jean Carroll’s personhood, right. Like she is not a citizen is what he was saying. She’s not an equal person to me. I do not acknowledge her as somebody with their own rights and dignity and claims on the law. 

You know, I don’t think Trump thought of it quite so clearly, but that’s clearly what he was doing, right, and I think that you’re right to tie the E. Jean Carroll case to Dobbs, to this long history of obliterating women’s rights under this sort of purview of male rule and private male prerogatives. 

You know, abortion…I’m writing about this now, like abortion is…abortion bans in itself are a kind of sexual violence or you can understand them that way. They do what rape does in the sense that they, you know, obliterate, or go against the woman’s will. 

They sort of commandeer the inside of her body, that most intimate sort of domain of the self and they act to put her back into a subordinate social role based on her gender, based on her sex, and that’s, you know, something that is not compatible with citizenship to have the law act to degrade you that way, and you know I think this is part of why civil suits and criminal prosecutions for sexual violence are so important because they establish women as their own individual people, as their own…as having their own claims on the law, as having their own right to say no, I am an equal member of this country, I am an equal person in this community, and I have claims to have my bodily integrity, my safety, my dignity protected by the state, and I think that’s something the law can do that a lot of other like forms of redress can’t do. 

So, I’m really…I’m really happy and I think it’s you know more meaningful beyond just E. Jean Carroll, you know, that lawyer and Carroll herself also said this in their statement, like they’re right. This is much bigger than one woman.

00:20:45 Michele Goodwin: 

You know, just a couple last questions for you and I really appreciate you joining us so much. I’m such an admirer of your work and have been for a very long time. For people who pay close attention to areas of reproductive health rights freedom and more, you were writing about what was coming in the United States before major papers were doing that work in the US and you were doing that in The Guardian

It’s worth noting given the conversation that we’ve been having that E. Jean Carroll was able to bring this litigation because New York had recently passed the Adult Survivors Act in 2022, which again says a lot. Can you just speak to that a little bit?

00:21:34 Moira Donegan: 

Yeah. So, the Adult Survivors Act is a piece of legislation that was passed by the State of New York that allows women who experienced sexual violence or you know sexual misconduct to bring civil suits for the period of one year even if those incidents happened so long in the past that the Statute of Limitations would have ordinarily expired. There’s still six months in that look-back window. You have until November if you’re somebody in New York who wants to bring a civil suit that would otherwise be beyond the Statute of Limitations and that still it was you know E. Jean Carroll lobbied for it. 

It was, you know, in part meant to enable the specific lawsuit, but it’s also something that I think has much broader implications for women in New York to sort of you know bring to justice things that would not have been, you know, as possible in the past both because of the political climate and because of the nature of how this kind of violence you know plays out in women’s lives. 

It often takes quite a long time to find the courage and to you know have a coherent understanding of the violence that happened to you. So, I think it’s a really interesting bill that reflects a renewed understanding of what sexual violence means and how it plays out.

00:23:00 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, I mean, this is the…in many ways this case typifies what makes it difficult to come forward and someone else says you lied, you made it up, this could not have been even if you have witnesses. In this case, Donald Trump’s lawyer said you have no witnesses when of course she did have witnesses, right. So, all of that intimidation, you know, the use of threats, the fear, the use of power make it very difficult for folks to come forward, including the type of shaming that can take place and more. 

So, look, we know that there are many other slices of litigation that’s to come. There are criminal suits going forward or criminal litigation going forward, charges. There have been civil suits before in other domains. What do you see as the season coming ahead given all of that and that Donald Trump is the front runner for the Republican ticket?

00:24:04   Moira Donegan: 

Yeah. You know, there’s…it has been a slow burn on Trump’s legal problems, right. When he was in office, there were, you know, obstacles to bringing criminal charges and you know, law is a slow-moving thing, and often a lot of litigation takes quite some time, but there does seem to be more of these coming to a head. 

I’m very interested in what’s going to happen at Fulton County down in Georgia, where a Grand Jury has said they are going to issue indictments concerning Trump’s phone call to Brad Raffensperger, the Secretary of State in Georgia, following the 2020 election, but you know Trump has sort of flouted his impunity from law. 

This has been a big part of his branding. It has been a big part of his appeal to his voters to say that you know these are things I can do that you wish you could do and that includes I think sexual assault, and you know, it will be very interesting to see if these lawsuits and these criminal investigations retort back to him. It’s like no, in fact you can’t do those things because nobody can do those things. Like this is not what we tolerate.

00:25:25 Michele Goodwin: 

Well, at the end of each of our shows we ask our guests whether there’s a silver lining that they see. We talk about so many things that are really gripping in the United States and that sometimes can be really quite heavy, and it’s somewhat interesting to sort of think about the silver lining in the context of this, but is there one?

00:26:15 Moira Donegan:  

Absolutely. You know, I think that there was a sense, you know, maybe a little premature, maybe a little bit despairing that Me Too was over, over the past few years, that it had sort of been a media moment and it had receded. There were things like you know the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial, which was I think you know not conducted well and was a real miscarriage of justice and was quite frightening for many survivors, right, to see the kind of humiliation and contempt and abuse that could be directed a survivor’s way, and that was a moment that was very sobering for a lot of us, right, but there has been in the aftermath of Dobbs as Trump returns to the national stage, a real resurgence of feminist sentiment, a real, you know, along with the tremendous human suffering that has been caused, there’s a recommitment to women’s political power and to the potential of their anger, and I think that that is a silver lining because there’s a lot of power to be had there.

00:27:23 Michele Goodwin: 

Moira Donegan, thank you so much for joining me for this On the Issues podcast. Thanks so much.

00:27:30 Moira Donegan: 

Thanks so much, Michele. I had a great time.

00:27:32 Michele Goodwin: 

Guests and listeners, that’s it for today’s episode of On the Issues with Michele Goodwin at Ms. Magazine. I want to thank each of you for tuning in for the full story and engaging with us. We hope you’ll join us again for our next episode where you know we’ll be reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is. 

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This has been your host Michele Goodwin reporting, rebelling, and telling it just like it is. On the Issues with Michele Goodwin is a Ms. Magazine joint production. Michele Goodwin and Kathy Spillar are our executive producers. Our producers for this episode are Roxy Szal, Oliver Haug, and also Alison Whelan. Our social media content producer is Sophia Panigrahi. The creative vision behind our work includes art and design by Brandi Phipps,editing by Will Alvarez and Natalie Holland and music by Chris J. Lee.