Earlier this week, E. Jean Carroll took legal action against the president: The writer and advice columnist is suing Donald Trump for defamation. The suit is a sequel, of sorts. This summer, Carroll came forward to say that Trump, in the mid-1990s, had assaulted her in a dressing room at a department store in New York City, pinning her against the wall and forcibly penetrating her with his penis. It was a credible allegation of rape leveled against the sitting president of the United States—and it is best remembered, several months later, for how it fell with a thud. Carroll’s account, which Trump denied in the most Trumpian way imaginable, was generally met, among the American media, in a manner that was itself distinctly Trumpian: not with shock, but instead with a weary knowingness. One more woman. One more claim.
And so now Carroll is pursuing another kind of recourse: Her suit seeks damages, both punitive and compensatory, for what she says are the lies Trump told in the course of denying her claim of assault. In filing the suit, Carroll is following in the legal path of Summer Zervos, a former contestant on The Apprentice who alleges that Trump groped her during what she understood to be a business meeting—and whose account, too, Trump has dismissed as lies. Zervos’s own defamation suit, despite the president’s objections, is currently making its way through the courts. (On Tuesday, the suit, which is in its discovery phase, yielded cellphone records that seem to corroborate Zervos’s account of the alleged assault.)
Both suits are acts of bravery. They are arguments for accountability. They insist that no one—even, and especially, the president of the United States—should be above the law. But both suits, too, are seeking a justice of last resort. They are acknowledging the particular strain of apathy that tends to meet claims of sexual assault in general, but especially those claims made against Trump. In the cases of some other famous and powerful men, the volume of women who came forward to tell stories about them led to a volume of another kind: The women’s stories, told collectively—about Bill Cosby, for example, or Harvey Weinstein—eventually became too loud to ignore. The numbers alone had a corroborative effect. In Trump’s case, however, the physics are reversed in a way that is at once perverse and cruel: The more women come forward, the less any of their stories seem to stick.