Bill Ketter

Presidential candidates tend to self-destruct when they cannot explain away sexual misconduct accusations. Ted Kennedy in 1980, Gary Hart in 1988 and John Edwards in 2008 come fast to mind.

But relentlessly defiant Donald Trump is like no other. He thrives on unrepentant rebuff of challenges to his moral character, even when caught on videotape (“Access Hollywood”) boasting about his sexual prowess.

His total rejection of prurient behavior persists with the verdict by a jury of six men and three women who found him guilty in a civil lawsuit of sexually abusing writer E. Jean Carroll in 1996, then later defaming her for telling about it in a 2019 memoir.

“I have absolutely no idea who this woman is,” said Trump in response. “This verdict is a disgrace — a continuation of the greatest witch hunt of all time.”

Seriously, of all time?

That would include the 17th-century Salem Witch Trials in colonial Massachusetts and the execution of 20 people, mostly women. Or a century earlier, the Witch Trials of Trier in the Holy Roman Empire, the largest documented witch hunt with 360 executions.

Witch hunt history aside, New York jurors awarded Carroll $5 million for Trump’s sexual abuse and for harm to her career and reputation. Yet they rejected her most serious claim that Trump raped her in a dressing room at Manhattan’s upscale Bergdorf Goodman department store.

Trump’s lawyers said they will appeal the jury verdict, tying up final disposition of the case for months, maybe years.

Carroll’s legal complaint began as a defamation lawsuit based on Trump’s insistence she concocted the rape story to boost sales of her satirical memoir, “What Do We Need Men For?” He called her accusations a con job and a hoax hatched by “a nut job.”

Carroll added the rape allegation in 2022 under New York State’s then-new law allowing a one-year grace period to file civil sexual battery complaints that otherwise would not be allowed because they occurred too long ago. The law developed from the Catholic clergy abuse scandal and the #MeToo movement.

Because Trump is so well known, Carroll’s lawyers convinced jurors he made the derogatory statements about her with reckless disregard for the truth and with actual malice, legal standards necessary to prove defamation in public figure cases.

Carroll, 79, an advice columnist at Elle magazine for 27 years, said she filed her lawsuit “to clear my name and get my life back. Today, the world finally knows the truth. This is a victory not just for me but for every woman who has suffered because she was not believed.”

It also seeds unpredictability over Trump’s quest to reclaim the White House. He’s the leading choice in early Republican voter polls. But the Carroll case isn’t his only legal mine field.

Trump faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in New York, charges linked to the Stormy Daniels hush payment case. He’s also under investigation in Georgia and by a Justice Department special counsel over accusations he illegally tried to overturn 2020 election results. And there is the federal inquiry into whether he mishandled classified documents after his presidential term ended.

Four open cases that pose risk to his ambition for a second presidential term. Even so, the odds of Trump’s campaign suddenly unraveling are uncertain due to his hardcore supporters who embrace his denials of wrongdoing.

Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas, occasional critics of Trump, admitted as much in the aftermath of the Carroll verdict. They allowed Trump’s personal behavior is already baked in among many GOP voters and won’t likely change because of his messy legal issues. Democrats predict the verdict will accrue to their advantage in a general election, especially among women voters.

Witch-hunt defense or not. Trump has slipped the hangman’s knot so often he could come to be known as the all-time Houdini of American presidential politics.

Bill Ketter is the senior vice president of news for CNHI. Reach him at wketter@cnhi.com.

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