In Trump’s Defamation Trial, the Nine Most Important People Are Enigmas

NEW YORK — Attorneys for E. Jean Carroll and Donald Trump, pitted against each other in a civil defamation trial in Manhattan, know little about the nine people considering her claim for millions of dollars in damages against the former president.

So, their lawyers have been left making pitches to those nine, the jurors, about whom they have only the barest scraps of information, working on hunches and instincts to persuade people who by design are not knowable.

Judge Lewis A. Kaplan ordered that the jurors remain anonymous as they considered how much Trump should pay for saying Carroll lied when she accused him of sexual abuse, for which he has already been found liable. Kaplan said jurors should be identified only by number and even suggested they not share their names with one other.

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In a pretrial ruling, he explained his rationale, citing the potential for influence attempts, harassment or worse by Trump’s supporters — or the former president himself.

With the trial set to resume Thursday after a pause following a juror’s illness Monday, the jurors have revealed no real clues about how they view the case unfolding before them.

Ordinarily, before a trial, lawyers on both sides dig into the backgrounds of those summoned for jury duty, scanning their social media pages and, in a case like Carroll v. Trump, searching for indications of polarized political beliefs, said Rosanna Garcia, the CEO of Vijilent Inc., a Massachusetts-based research firm that gathers public data about prospective jurors for attorneys.

“You can go through someone’s Facebook postings, and you can see a photo of them wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat,” she said. “In that case, you don’t even have to ask any questions. You know where they stand.”

Eighty prospective jurors were called in for Carroll v. Trump in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, according to a court spokesperson; it took about half a day on Jan. 16 to conduct voir dire, the traditional examination used to screen out potential bias. The panel that was selected includes seven men and two women.

The trial comes less than a year after a different jury in the same courthouse awarded $5 million to Carroll, 80, a former Elle magazine advice columnist, after finding that Trump sexually abused her in a department-store dressing room in the 1990s and defamed her in a post on his Truth Social website in 2022.

Kaplan has ruled that those earlier findings apply in the current trial, which covers separate remarks, and that Trump, 77, may not contest in court — as he frequently does elsewhere — Carroll’s version of events or argue that she fabricated her account.

The narrow damages issue before the jury stems from comments Trump made in June 2019, after Carroll first accused him of the assault in a New York magazine article. Trump, who was then still in office, responded that her claim was “totally false,” that he had never met her and that she was trying to sell a book.

Carroll testified last week that her reputation has been “shattered” by Trump’s comments and his continued lashing out in social media posts, on CNN, in news conferences and on the campaign trial, as recently as last week.

When jury selection was held last week, Carroll and Trump’s lawyers jockeyed to identify those who they felt would be sympathetic to their client’s cause. But they were able to assess potential jurors only by their limited answers to questions Kaplan posed concerning their backgrounds, occupations and politics.

Many of the prospective jurors indicated that they were registered with a political party, though they were not asked which one. Many said they had voted in the presidential elections of 2016 and 2020, but they were not asked to reveal for whom they had cast their ballots.

Those whose responses suggested they were more politically engaged did not make it onto the panel — like one retired English teacher who got her news from “Pod Save America,” a podcast hosted by former aides to former President Barack Obama, and a workplace investigator from Westchester, New York, who had attended a Trump rally.

Nor did a 60-year-old corporate lawyer from Manhattan who answered affirmatively when Kaplan asked whether anyone felt that Trump was being treated unfairly by the courts.

“I don’t think a lot of these matters have been brought with any sense of fairness,” the lawyer said, referring to the myriad civil and criminal cases Trump is facing. “The motives, in my view, are suspect.”

Some of the questions were more mundane. People were asked whether they had ever contributed money or supported a political campaign for Trump, Obama, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.

“Have any of you ever read any books by Mr. Trump?” the judge asked. “No affirmative response,” he noted.

How about books or columns by Carroll? he continued.

“I’ve read her column a few times,” one woman responded.

“Would that affect your ability to be fair to both sides in this case?” Kaplan asked.

“No,” the woman said.

“Has anybody ever watched ‘The Apprentice?’” the judge asked. A handful indicated they had.

In the end, those selected for the jury included a retired track supervisor for the New York City Transit Authority, a property manager, an emergency medicine doctor, a publicist and five other New Yorkers.

A majority said they were from Manhattan, the Bronx and Westchester County. Not everyone offered their age, but among those who did, the ages ranged from 26 years old to 60 years old.

In court, the jury has been hard to read. Jurors have largely kept their expressions blank, focusing on testimony and taking notes.

One male juror cracked a smile when the title of one of Carroll’s books, “What Do We Need Men For?” was said aloud in court.

The same juror chuckled after Carroll’s lawyers displayed a post on X, formerly Twitter, that showed a photo of her smiling next to an image of the Crypt-Keeper, a decaying comic-book and television character. “I want to stipulate that I am on the left,” Carroll remarked drolly.

It was a light moment amid difficult testimony by Carroll about the deluge of often cruel posts on social media and emails to her inbox, some containing threats to kill or rape her.

As Carroll described the fear she felt as she read the messages, jurors looked solemn and attentive; Trump shook his head and sometimes scoffed.

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