In the wake of the eye-popping $83.3 million verdict against Trump for defaming E. Jean Carroll, many commentators mocked Trump’s bumbling lawyer, Alina Habba, and not without cause. The 39-year-old fashion model, er, attorney, who had never tried a defamation case before (and, in fact, was lead attorney in only three previous cases) was repeatedly rebuked by Judge Lewis Kaplan for a variety of basic errors, such as referring to materials not introduced into evidence and persisting in bringing up matters already ruled out of bounds by the judge.
But let’s not lose sight of who hired Habba and whose behavior in the courtroom and outside it brought this debacle upon himself. Trump’s judgment here was appalling, and for those who have begun to see him as a master tactician, it’s a reminder that, while he can reliably hoodwink his cult, his gross behavior and erratic decision-making are only getting worse.
To recap: Trump was found responsible in 2023 for sexually assaulting and defaming Carroll. That verdict precluded him, by collateral estoppel, from claiming innocence in the second trial, which was only about damages and his continued repetition of the original libel. Under the circumstances, a reasonable person would lie low and hire an experienced attorney. Above all, a reasonable person would have shut up.
Trump took a different approach. He seems to have decided that his trials are his armor as he rides toward the GOP nomination. He will employ his magic jiu-jitsu to turn a devastating liability (91 felony counts and assorted other cases) into a strength. It’s Trump being persecuted for the forgotten, white, middle class. It’s Trump being nailed to a courtroom for your sins.
That strategy might have some semblance of logic for the fake-business-records / hush-money-for-a-porn-star case, the election subversion case, or more tenuously for the classified documents/obstruction case. But for the E. Jean Carroll defamation case, it defies explanation. Right-wing media dutifully ignored the first verdict, which established that Trump did sexually assault Carroll. Why he would risk hanging a lantern on the second case is anyone’s guess — especially when his contumacy could potentially cost real money.
He failed to hire competent counsel. Habba not only flunked the basics of trial procedure, she also failed to control her client (which, to be fair, may be impossible), and, most damaging to Trump, failed to lodge objections, which may doom any appeal. Nor did it help her position with Kaplan that she requested a pause in the trial due to illness and was then photographed at a Trump event. Not recommended.
Trump also contributed to this massive judgment with his ceaseless boasts about his wealth. Carroll’s lawyer entered into evidence Trump’s deposition in the New York attorney general’s civil fraud case. A deposition is a sworn oath and cannot be contradicted without the risk of perjury. In Trumpian fashion, he claimed that his brand alone was worth “maybe $10 billion.” The lawyer made good use of that in urging the jury to award sizable punitive damages.
Trump showed up at the trial repeatedly — though he was not required to attend — and invited the judge’s discipline by muttering “con job” and “witch hunt” loudly enough for the jury to hear. He displayed fierce contempt for the judge. He attacked Carroll at campaign stops in New Hampshire, and he signaled to the jury, through Truth Social posts even as the case was being tried, that he was unrepentant about his vile defamation, vowing to “say it again, a thousand times.”
On the trial’s final day, as Robbie Kaplan, one of Carroll’s lawyers, was delivering her summation to the jury, Trump got up and walked out of the courtroom. That just isn’t done. The decorum of a court is more than just manners. It signals the respect we offer to judges and juries, and thereby to the judicial process in toto. The robes, the “all rise” when the judge enters, the “ladies and gentlemen of the jury” — all of it upholds the rule of law. Trump’s flagrant contempt for the process may have been the final nail in his $83.3 million judgment.
Instead of Trump being able to turn the trial into a martyrdom opportunity, Carroll’s lawyers leaped on his behavior to strengthen their case against him. “You saw how he has behaved through this trial,” advised Shawn Crowley. “You heard him. You saw him stand up and walk out of this courtroom while Ms. Kaplan was speaking. Rules don’t apply to Donald Trump.” The jury, they argued, would have to return a verdict big enough to bite even a (putative) billionaire, and should send the only kind of message he would understand that he must stop his spiteful, malicious behavior.
Trump was almost certain to be assessed damages over and above the original $5 million judgment from last year, but this whopping punitive verdict was entirely self-inflicted. The very stable genius has blundered as thoroughly as he could in this case. If he keeps up this level of strategy, he’s going to have a very tough 2024.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast. Her new book, “Hard Right: The GOP’s Drift Toward Extremism,” is available now.