The Crowd Beyond the Courtroom

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Written By Pinang Driod

The first time Donald Trump faced the writer E. Jean Carroll in court, in the spring of 2023, he declined to appear at the trial. He lost: The jury, finding him liable both for assaulting her in a department-store dressing room in the 1990s and for defaming her in the aftermath, awarded her $5 million in damages. This month, another defamation suit went to trial—a case based on claims Trump had made about Carroll during his presidency in 2019. This time, he attended the proceedings. Or, more accurately, he attempted to star in them, treating the courtroom as a set and casting himself, variously, as the trial’s screenwriter, narrator, publicist, and tragic hero. On Thursday, very briefly, Trump took the stand. On Friday, as Carroll’s lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, delivered her closing arguments, he made an abrupt, dramatic exit. Sitting with his defense team, he pouted and smirked and stage-whispered his indignation about the proceedings (“con job,” “witch hunt”), at one point emoting so loudly that the judge, Lewis Kaplan, threatened to remove him from the courtroom.

The emoter, however, was unfazed. “I would love it,” Trump replied.

The exchange made for a tidy metaphor: for the trial itself and for the broader implications of Trump’s stage fight with the American legal system. How do you handle someone who sees himself as an exception to every rule? Carroll’s lawyers framed the damages they sought as a justice of last resort; although Trump “may not care about the law” and “certainly” doesn’t care about truth, Roberta Kaplan argued, “he does care about money.” And the jury’s verdict, delivered Friday afternoon, suggests that the approach worked. The amount they awarded Carroll, $83.3 million, comprises $18.3 million in compensatory damages and $65 million in punitive damages.

So Trump has been punished. And he has, in one very particular way, changed his behavior as a result: Over the weekend, his social-media feeds were notably lacking in Carroll-aimed insults. As happens so often when the former president is involved, though, the accountability comes with an asterisk—and not only because Trump’s team quickly announced plans to appeal Friday’s verdict. Jury trials will always be performances of sorts, with each side competing to win over its 12-member audience. In this one, however, the defendant aimed his antics toward the crowd beyond the courtroom—the jury not of his peers but of his followers. He participated in the trial, it seemed, merely to undermine it, saving the bulk of his testimony for Truth Social, where, post by post, he reframed a case about defamation as evidence of his own persecution. By Friday, acknowledging the verdict, he declared that “there is no longer Justice in America.” The escalation was as predictable as it was absurd, and therefore tempting to dismiss. But the former president has many more trials to come, and in that sense his rhetoric is also an omen. Trump has spent years undermining Americans’ faith in elections; this is what it looks like when he takes aim at the legal system.

Courtrooms, typically, are settings of constraint. Juries, the oaths they take, the evidence they hear, the context in which they hear it—each is carefully calibrated. Judge Kaplan is known for his no-nonsense stewardship of his courtroom, and the proceedings in E. Jean Carroll v. Donald J. Trump were further narrowed through his invocation of “collateral estoppel,” an efficiency rule that limited the scope of the trial. Because the question of whether Trump had assaulted and defamed Carroll had been decided in the earlier proceeding, the question for this jury was simply what damages, if any, Trump should pay for the defamation.

The result, for Trump, was a setting that was uniquely intolerant of his preferred forms of discourse. And you could read his theatrics, in one way, as a rebellion against the constraint. But you could read them, too, as extensions of the dare—the boast—Trump made when Judge Kaplan considered ejecting him from the courtroom. Trump is a celebrity who comes with an invisible audience; he is a defendant who is supported, in turn, by a collection of defenders who will happily do his bidding when summoned. His fans were a touch point in this latest defamation trial, as attorneys exchanged arguments about the source of graphic death threats Carroll received after Trump maligned her in 2019. But they were there throughout the proceeding, as well, in the galleries beyond the courtroom, spectral onlookers suggesting that Trump the legal defendant cannot be separated from Trump the political insurgent. “When you’re a star, they let you do it,” his famous line goes. “You can do anything.”

And, so, Trump spent much of the defamation trial engaged in petty displays of impunity. In the courtroom, the jury heard arguments—based on vetted evidence and under-penalty-of-perjury testimony—that Trump had publicly maligned Carroll. Outside court, meanwhile, Trump used social media to … malign Carroll publicly. (On one day alone, he published more than 40 posts deriding her.) He also denigrated many others he associated with Carroll’s case, among them Judge Kaplan, Roberta Kaplan, the state of New York, Joe Biden, Democrats, and the American justice system itself—a spate of insults that treated courts as conspiracies, essentially, fueled by dark money and vapid partisanship and an abiding hatred of Donald Trump.

The insults did not merely erode the distinction between the court and the court of public opinion; they insisted, post by post and screed by screed, that there is only the court of opinion—that all discourse is political discourse, and that courts are political theaters by other means. In this framework, the $83.3 million awarded to E. Jean Carroll has nothing to do with reputation or defamation or rape or justice; it is a political punishment meted out by people who want Donald Trump to pay simply for being Donald Trump.

The verdict, in practice, may well do what Roberta Kaplan claimed it could: keep Trump in check and make him put his money, in a direct sense, where his mouth is. But cynicism sells. The notion that the system is rigged has its appeal, whether applied to electoral politics or the courts. And as Trump’s trials proliferate, he will likely become more extreme in his denunciations of the law. During another courtroom appearance Trump made earlier this month—for charges that he plotted to overturn the 2020 election—his lawyer argued that he should have absolute immunity from prosecution for actions taken while he was president. The three-judge panel seemed skeptical of a standard that would allow Trump to live above the law. But that is his preferred perch. And many Americans have endorsed his elevation. Last week, Donald Trump lost a case in court. But he won the New Hampshire primary.

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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