Why the Assault Allegations Against Trump Don’t Stick

E. Jean Carroll’s defamation suit against the president pushes up against an obdurate truth: His very ubiquity has afforded him a kind of impunity.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Earlier this week, E. Jean Carroll took legal action against the president: The writer and advice columnist is suing Donald Trump for defamation. The suit is a sequel, of sorts. This summer, Carroll came forward to say that Trump, in the mid-1990s, had assaulted her in a dressing room at a department store in New York City, pinning her against the wall and forcibly penetrating her with his penis. It was a credible allegation of rape leveled against the sitting president of the United States—and it is best remembered, several months later, for how it fell with a thud. Carroll’s account, which Trump denied in the most Trumpian way imaginable, was generally met, among the American media, in a manner that was itself distinctly Trumpian: not with shock, but instead with a weary knowingness. One more woman. One more claim.

And so now Carroll is pursuing another kind of recourse: Her suit seeks damages, both punitive and compensatory, for what she says are the lies Trump told in the course of denying her claim of assault. In filing the suit, Carroll is following in the legal path of Summer Zervos, a former contestant on The Apprentice who alleges that Trump groped her during what she understood to be a business meeting—and whose account, too, Trump has dismissed as lies. Zervos’s own defamation suit, despite the president’s objections, is currently making its way through the courts. (On Tuesday, the suit, which is in its discovery phase, yielded cellphone records that seem to corroborate Zervos’s account of the alleged assault.)

Both suits are acts of bravery. They are arguments for accountability. They insist that no one—even, and especially, the president of the United States—should be above the law. But both suits, too, are seeking a justice of last resort. They are acknowledging the particular strain of apathy that tends to meet claims of sexual assault in general, but especially those claims made against Trump. In the cases of some other famous and powerful men, the volume of women who came forward to tell stories about them led to a volume of another kind: The women’s stories, told collectively—about Bill Cosby, for example, or Harvey Weinstein—eventually became too loud to ignore. The numbers alone had a corroborative effect. In Trump’s case, however, the physics are reversed in a way that is at once perverse and cruel: The more women come forward, the less any of their stories seem to stick.

Instead, the stories themselves become subsumed in what I have come to think of as the fog: the cloud that hovers around Trump, invisible but omnipresent, made of ignored accusations and stifled voices. In its vapors lurk all the miasmic misogynies that are at this point extremely well known—I moved on her like a bitch; blood coming out of her wherever; a big, fat pig—and that, in their very familiarity, have lost the ability to shock. The fog surrounds Trump, but it also protects him: Every new allegation against him—of groping, of harassment, of humiliation, of rape—diffuses into its ether. Just as Trump himself has achieved a kind of atmospheric ubiquity, the cloud that covers him manages to be everywhere and nowhere at the same time. It expands, but is never expended. Assault is intimate; it is violent. The cloud absorbs those facts, transforming allegations of physical horror into airy notions.

The fog is at work when Trump and his defenders say, with straight faces, that every single woman who has made a claim against him is a liar. In the fog’s haze, it becomes possible for a weary public to learn that the president has been credibly accused of rape—and to throw up its hands. One more woman.

Carroll, in discussing her suit, acknowledged the physics of the fog. She made a point of noting that, in bringing Trump to court, she is seeking not only recompense for herself, but also a broader kind of justice. “I am filing this on behalf of every woman who has ever been harassed, assaulted, silenced, or spoken up only to be shamed, fired, ridiculed and belittled,” she put it in a statement.

And yet the mechanics of that effort will be distinctly personal. What might be most notable about the Carroll and Zervos cases is that they are fighting, in particular, for the dignity of individuality. They are fighting the fog by insisting that the minutest details of their stories matter; that the specifics matter; that the women’s own idiosyncrasies matter. A hallmark of the president’s style, with all its casual cruelties, is an insistence that some people are best understood not as people at all, but as something lesser and lower: as animals; as objects; as, indeed, hazy ideas. The women’s suits reject that premise. They will live or die by their human details. That is how the fog might finally be pierced.

The suits arrive in the midst of a pop-cultural moment that is trying in its own way to bring a new kind of physical intimacy to stories of sexual assault. In her book, Know My Name, Chanel Miller—the young woman once known only as the “Stanford rape survivor”—describes in wincing minutiae what it is like to undergo the corroborative humiliations of the rape kit. The Netflix show Unbelievable details the way trauma can manifest not only as physical pain in the moment of an attack, but also as a psychic ache that lingers in the lives of survivors. There are many more stories that deploy this sort of granularity—stories often told by women, their words blunt and raw and painful.

The fog, however, is dense. It stretches and spreads and it wraps the American president in its protections. Late last month saw the publication of All the President’s Women, an in-depth exploration of Trump’s tendency to objectify the women who cross his path. The book, by the journalists Barry Levine and Monique El-Faizy, includes many new allegations of harassment and assault, some relatively minor and some explosive. (For the latter claims, the authors trace their efforts to substantiate them, but prove unable, in the end, to corroborate the rumors. The White House, for its part, dismissed the book as “trash.”) The most powerful element of the book, however, is the index included at its conclusion: a list of the many, many women who have come forward to claim that Trump mistreated them. The accounts vary; the theme does not. I moved on her like a bitch, the book suggests, is not the exception; it is the rule.

All the President’s Women, nonetheless, met roughly the same reception that Carroll’s initial rape allegation did. Part of that, certainly, might have had to do with the particular timing of the book’s publication (it was released at about the same time that found the House of Representatives initiating its impeachment inquiry into Trump). Part of it, as well, could involve the authors’ choice to include minor offenses (for one, Trump kissing the NBC reporter Katy Tur on her cheek, without her consent) under the umbrella of much more egregious allegations. But the book also offers damning evidence, collectively, of Trump’s lifelong treatment of women as playthings; it could operate just as readily as a textbook on the workings of rape culture. And yet it, too, landed with a thud. It, too, shocked but failed to surprise. “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic,” the adage goes. The same might be said of the dozens of stories women have told about Trump’s alleged abuses. That is another kind of tragedy.

Carroll’s suit against Trump can be understood, in that sense, as a last-ditch plea for empathy. Zervos’s suit can be understood in the same way. The women are fighting the fog. They are hoping that the painful details of their stories, put into the court record, can somehow shake people out of their apathy. They will be fighting a difficult battle. Carroll, explaining why she didn’t come forward about her experience with Trump before the 2016 presidential election, noted her worry that a claim of rape against him would not compromise his candidacy. On the contrary: The story she told about him, Carroll assumed, would only make Donald Trump more popular.