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11 May 2023

CNN’s Town Hall let Donald Trump have the last laugh

E Jean Carroll convinced a civil jury that the former president assaulted her, but the US’s culture of impunity is the real winner.

By Sarah Baxter

Victory was sweet while it lasted, but it took little more than 24 hours for Donald Trump to turn E Jean Carroll’s triumph into dust. On Tuesday 9 May the former Elle magazine agony aunt scored a notable victory over the former president of the United States when a jury found Trump liable for sexually abusing her in the changing room of a New York department store in the mid-1990s and defaming her as a liar who wasn’t his “type”.

Leaving court with a $5m verdict in her favour, she shook hands cordially with Trump’s lawyer, Joe Tacopina, and told him, “He did it – and you know it.” Well played, E Jean.

The next morning Carroll, 79, went on a celebratory tour of television studios. “We did away with the perfect victim concept,” she told MSNBC. “The perfect woman always screams. She always goes to the police. She always writes the date in the diary.” Carroll did none of those things, yet she still managed to persuade a jury of six men and three women that her account was credible, although they stopped short of concluding that Trump raped her. “For every woman in the country, this is for you,” she continued. “Be believed.” With all the ups and downs of the #MeToo movement, this felt like a high point.

Twelve hours later, addressing a live CNN Town Hall meeting on Wednesday night in New Hampshire, Trump turned the whole courtroom drama into a joke. And the audience laughed along with him. It was galling as hell. Trump, 76, succeeded in belittling and humiliating Carroll all over again – and, by extension, every woman who felt cheered by her success. I hope she gets the money (which is not yet certain) because this was a mockery of justice.

When the CNN host and Town Hall moderator Kaitlan Collins asked Trump what he would say to voters who thought the verdict disqualified him from office, the audience tittered, as if the very question was ridiculous. Trump gloated, “Well, there aren’t too many of them because my poll numbers just came out [and] they went up.” Boom! At this point the crowd erupted in whoops and cheers. Trump had a point, by the way. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released on 5 May showed him beating Joe Biden by six points, though Democrats insisted it was an outlier.

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[See also: Donald Trump’s indictment is unprecedented. It shouldn’t be]

Emboldened, Trump went on to smear Carroll with accusations the New York judge had ruled as irrelevant, about her having called her “nice” African-American ex-husband an “ape” and her cat “Vagina”. What a hoot! He went on to defame her, as he has done many times before, as a “wack job” who peddled fake news, and repeated, “I don’t know her, I have never met her. I don’t know who she is.” So what if the jury disagreed? The audience lapped up.

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By the time he was spinning a fantasy about how Carroll must have really fancied him and narrating how, “We’re walking into a crowded department. We had this great chemistry – and a few minutes later we ended up in a dressing room,” I felt sick to my stomach. It was like watching one of those late night TV talk shows, where the celebrity guest yuks it up with the host. Only this was not some harmless film star, but America’s troll-in-chief, who thinks he can be re-elected president in 2024. And he may be right.

When the Access Hollywood tape in which Trump boasted about grabbing women by the “pussy” came out on the eve of the 2016 election, I ripped up a column I had filed for the Sunday Times that weekend and wrote a new one saying he had just blown his campaign. I thought his crass, vulgar comments would alienate Republican-leaning, suburban women voters – not many perhaps, but enough to cost him victory in a tight campaign. 

Obviously I was wrong. Although suburban women helped to eject Trump from the White House in 2020 and the abortion issue may be an added factor in 2024, the fleeting nature of Carroll’s triumph only underscores how every victory for women has to be fought for over and again. Nothing is certain.

Trump’s entire Town Hall performance, delivered in an absurd decision by CNN to an audience of Republican primary voters and independents, was an opportunity to display two of his biggest strengths. The first is Trump’s ability to pour out a firehose of lies, whether on the “rigged” election, the Carroll trial, classified documents, or anything else, at such speed that it is impossible for the moderator to stop the torrent. Ever the misogynist, he trampled Collins, a rising star at the network, by calling her a “nasty person” who didn’t know what she was talking about when she desperately tried to fact-check him.

The second is his gift for comedy. Trump critics don’t like to admit that he makes people laugh (often with mean and horrible jokes), but the evidence was plain to see in New Hampshire. One of the reasons he draws huge crowds in remote places is because he provides free entertainment. I have witnessed this at his rallies time and again.

Trump is box office. This is why the ailing CNN could not resist putting him on prime time television. Having been too cowardly to face Carroll in court, he was allowed to shred her in public. Who cares if Carroll can sue him again? America’s culture of impunity has already won.

[See also: As strongman leaders around the world begin to fall, has authoritarianism peaked?]

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