Former President and confirmed sexual abuser Donald Trump took the stand Thursday afternoon for a few short moments in the second defamation trial brought by E. Jean Carroll, the former journalist who claimed that Trump raped her in a department store changing room in the mid-90s (these claims were established in her first trial against him). Because Trump’s response to her initial report of the sexual assault came in the form of defamation, and because Carroll lost her job and became the victim of virtually bottomless threats and abuse from Trump and his sex pest enthusiasts, the question that will go to the jurors in a federal court in this round of litigation is a simple one: How much will Trump’s defamation cost him? In a prior trial, in addition to confirming that the assault indeed happened, a jury found unanimously that the former president needed to pay Carroll $5 million for the defamation in the time span it reviewed. Judge Lewis Kaplan has cautioned Trump and his lawyer, Alina Habba, that this court is not the place to relitigate that question, it is just about how much more money he owes for the rest of the defamation.
But Trump, in the manner of a small child or geriatric narcissist, maintains that because he didn’t attend that first trial, it must not have actually occurred. So he spent a good deal of his time on Thursday pitching tantrums about issues that were not open to debate. “I never met the woman,” Trump hissed at his attorney, Habba, as both sides were discussing the potential scope of his testimony before the jurors entered the room. Funnily enough, saying precisely that thing is one of the acts for which Trump is currently in court.
Once he got on the stand, one of the very few questions Habba asked was whether he denied the allegation. “Yes. She said something I considered a false accusation—” Trump replied. Everything after the “Yes” was stricken by Judge Kaplan. Perhaps the only question that Trump answered in a way that suggested he even understood what this second trial was about was whether he ever “instructed anyone to hurt Ms. Carroll.” “No,” Trump answered. “I just wanted to defend myself and my family and, frankly, the presidency. Everything after “No” was erased. So these longer responses happen to be immaterial in this defamation claim, although it squarely locates Trump’s defense somewhere between “crime boss” and “stochastic terrorist” as the presumptive theory of his innocence.
Given that Trump’s testimony was entirely pointless, brutish, and short—he was essentially kicked off the stand after a mere three minutes—the question one must ask is why did he bother to testify at all? Certainly he got everything off his chest Wednesday night in his unrebutted Truth Social rage-fest directed at the judge, the plaintiff, George Conway, and every perceived enemy past and future? What possible benefit did he see in taking the stand to say things that don’t help him at all in this trial?
I tend to agree with what Amanda Marcotte wrote earlier this week: That for Trump the Bully, the trial became a delicious showcase for how to be a bully. He was quite literally using the courtroom to reenact the behavior for which he is on the hook, threatening and abusing the plaintiff. By the same token, Trump has thus far spent every day of the hearings defaming Carroll in real time, often from inside the courtroom. The ability to replicate the very conduct you are denying having done is a magnificent way to show that you own the law. And Trump is nothing if not the snake swallowing its own tail of performative criminality.
But Trump, who has abandoned any pretense of abiding by the rule of law, just as he has abandoned any pretense of abiding by a vote count, is doing one more thing, and it’s worth clocking it. When a judge tells Trump what he may not do in a courtroom, or on social media, or on the witness stand—as Judges Tanya Chutkan and Arthur Engoron and Lewis Kaplan have repeatedly done throughout each of his trials—and Trump does it anyway, as Trump has repeatedly done throughout each of his trials, it’s Trump’s way of signaling to everyone in the room that he is special; he is above the law. Oh, and remember that the room is actually all of America, because his conduct is immediately broadcast worldwide.
Trump needs to perform that a judge can’t constrain him any more than the law can’t constrain him, as a means of showing himself to be the center of the moral and legal universe. The act of testifying to things that are going to be stricken from the record is the legal equivalent of a tree falling in a forest when the jury is certainly not allowed to consider it. But for Donald Trump, who separates jurors into friends and foes in the same way Alina Habba asks witnesses whether or not they voted for Trump, the jury is always rigged in much the same way that the judge is always corrupt. Oh and also, the first trial that definitely happened and in fact found him liable? It never even happened. Trump wasn’t there. What matters to Donald J. Trump is to embody what Donald J. Trump feels in the instant he is feeling it. Any day he can say the thing he has been barred from saying is a great day for him, because it makes him feel powerful.
Which leads me to conclude something about the tribulations of Trump’s former lawyer, Joe Tacopina, in the earlier trial Trump endured at the hands of E. Jean Carroll. Tacopina’s mistake in representing Trump’s interests in that first defamation suit lay in trying to win the case in the eyes of the law, which meant keeping Trump far away from the jurors. Trump has corrected for that by retaining Habba who understands that whether Trump wins or loses matters less than assuring that he feels like a winner, whatever the verdict. And what is winning if not getting to do the thing you were instructed, under penalty of sanctions, not to do. Habba knows that the outcome of these trials (how much money he has to pay) doesn’t matter nearly as much as establishing that Trump is as immune to law, judges, gag orders, and threats of sanctions, as he is immune to reality, fact, science and election results. She is the stage mother who comes to all his ballet recitals and t-ball games and tells him he’s a star and that everyone else is doping. And if a little lawyering happens on the side, well, that’s a solid day’s work.
What’s frightening about these sequential Trumpian performances of above-the-law-ness, is that as they accrue, he is trained to both believe even more obstinately that the law is what he says it is, and to attempt to push the boundaries ever further the next time. For the folks who didn’t believe Trump would testify this week, because he had nothing to gain and everything to lose, we missed the foundational point. Losing the jury or the case is less important than showing yet again, that they are irrelevant constructs in a world in which he declaims his innocence and millions still believe him.
Perhaps the scariest takeaway from the three-minutes or so Donald Trump spent on the stand Thursday, was that he was really just testifying that he can do and say whatever he wants, and his followers will come away thinking that the law is fake and Trump is real. The chilling irony of the only truly substantive thing Trump said—that he didn’t order his followers to harm E. Jean Carroll—is that his trials are seemingly becoming exercises in ordering his followers to disregard the law, as he does, or to choose their own legal endings, as he does. Because if he is above the law, they must be as well.