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Column: After verdict in sexual abuse case, will Trump pay a political price? That’s up to his GOP rivals

A woman smiles as photographers take pictures of her outdoors.
E. Jean Carroll walks out of Manhattan federal court after winning a $5-million judgment against former President Trump. The verdict is unlikely to shake up the 2024 presidential race, at least in the short term.
(Seth Wenig / Associated Press)
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There is a long list of descriptors used to identify Donald Trump: real estate magnate, reality TV star, former president, insurrectionist, criminally indicted payer of hush money.

As of Tuesday, a new particularly incriminating label can be added: sexual assailant.

Even so, the determination of a civil jury — that Trump physically brutalized writer E. Jean Carroll — seems unlikely to make much difference to his unshakable political base or, for now, change the fundamental dynamics of the 2024 presidential race.

“I don’t see this moving the needle at all,” said Charlie Cook, a nonpartisan campaign analyst who’s spent decades handicapping elections. “Every time we’ve thought that something would hurt him, it hasn’t.”

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That said, Trump still faces a raft of criminal investigations involving his efforts to overturn the 2020 election, the attempted Jan. 6 coup he inspired and the mishandling of purloined documents he spirited to his Mar-a-Lago retreat.

By the time Republican voters cast the first ballots next February in Iowa, will the cumulative weight of Trump’s legal burdens — compounded by the verdict in Carroll’s lawsuit — be enough to drive a significant number of GOP voters away?

That jury is still out.

A Manhattan federal jury found Trump liable for assaulting the former advice columnist, then defaming her by calling her a liar

May 9, 2023

A Manhattan panel of six men and three women deliberated less than three hours — barely enough time to cater lunch — before returning a verdict finding that Trump had forced himself on Carroll nearly three decades ago in the dressing room of an upscale Manhattan department store.

The jury found Trump liable for sexual abuse and defamation and awarded his victim $5 million in damages.

But if the swiftness of the decision seemed clear-cut and ringingly decisive, the verdict proved less so.

Jurors did not accept Carroll’s claim the ex-president had raped her, rejecting the most inflammatory allegation and — crucially — keeping the combination of “rape” and “Trump” out of news headlines.

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Even that might not have put off very many Trump’s supporters.

His criminal indictment in March for paying hush money to hide an extramarital affair and steady his wobbling 2016 presidential campaign — a career killer under most circumstances — proved a fundraising bonanza and prompted many Republicans to rally behind Trump’s bid to reclaim the White House.

Minutes after Tuesday’s verdict was delivered, Mike Madrid, a founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, wisecracked on Twitter, “That sound you hear is Trump’s polling numbers going up in the Republican primary.”

Perhaps.

A great deal will depend on what happens over the next several months — on the campaign trail even more than inside a courthouse — as the fight for the Republican nomination presumably heats up.

Most of Trump’s GOP rivals have so far shown a reluctance to go beyond the merest, veiled criticism of Trump, or offered only weak-tea admonitions.

“The jury verdict should be treated with seriousness and is another example of the indefensible behavior of Donald Trump,” former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson tut-tutted after Tuesday’s verdict was delivered.

That sort of gentility is not unusual for this stage of the campaign. As the balloting nears, and competition intensifies, candidates will have to make a strategic decision. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump’s main rival at the moment, will in particular have to decide how openly and aggressively he wants go after the GOP front-runner.

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“There is an available chunk of the Republican electorate that wants to move on from Trump,” said Sarah Longwell, a GOP strategist and longtime Trump critic, who has conducted countless focus groups plumbing voter sentiments.

“The question that I’ve had is whether any of the candidates running against Trump have the political talent to take him on directly and seize that available audience,” Longwell said. “Can they start outflanking Trump and showing people they can be a tougher fighter? Maybe. But nobody’s figured out how to do that yet.”

A federal jury in New York quickly returned a verdict that found the former president liable for sexual abuse and defamation of the plaintiff.

May 9, 2023

It is Trump’s great good fortune that his political future won’t be decided by the jury in Manhattan. He proved a perfectly terrible witness on his own behalf.

In a videotaped deposition — Trump did not take the stand — he seemed alternately bored and put upon, suggesting at one point that Carroll would have enjoyed being raped.

When presented a photograph of Carroll, he mistook his accuser, “not my type,” for his second wife, Marla Maples. He defended his infamous hot-mic moment on “Access Hollywood” in which he said he could grab women by the genitals — “and when you’re a star, they let you do it” — by saying that history backs him up.

“If you look over the last million years, I guess that’s been largely true,” Trump said in his deposition. “Not always, but largely true. Unfortunately, or fortunately.”

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Trump famously boasted during the 2016 campaign he could stand in the middle of Manhattan’s 5th Avenue and shoot someone without losing votes.

Now, with Tuesday’s swift verdict, he’s about to test another proposition: whether he can sexually maul a woman in a Bergdorf Goodman changing room and still make that claim.

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