Q and A

Q&A: E. Jean Carroll, sexual assault, and a lesson in perspective

October 19, 2020
E. Jean Carroll, right, talks to reporters outside a courthouse in New York on March 4, 2020. Seth Wenig/AP Photo

In the run-up to the presidential election, The Atlantic launched E. Jean Carroll’s series of interviews with women who allege that Donald Trump sexually assaulted them. This week, the final installment of “I Moved on Her Very Heavily” goes live. 

Carroll, a journalist and author, recently joined Kyle Pope, editor and publisher of CJR, to discuss her interviews with Trump’s survivors and why she knew telling her own story of how Trump raped her in the mid-nineties would rouse his base.

RELATED: E. Jean Carroll puts Trump’s survivors in charge


Kyle Pope: It’s been four years this month since we woke up to find ourselves staring at a video clip, an outtake from Access Hollywood, in which then-candidate Donald Trump bragged about how easy it was for him to sexually assault women. Here’s the part of that tape I will always remember:

Donald Trump: I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.

Billy Bush: Whatever you want.

Donald Trump: Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

Pope: That moment solidified what became a pattern with Donald Trump. Reports from women, credible, believable reports that he had assaulted or sexually harassed them; then a brief burst of scandal; followed by, frankly, nothing. And it’s been the case again and again and again. It started during his campaign, actually long before that. But it has continued through his presidency. And it raises really important questions, media questions, about why this hasn’t become more of an issue in this reelection campaign.

E. Jean Carroll: Kyle, that is the mystery, isn’t it? Big, fat mystery.

Pope: Does it enrage you when you watch these debates and this conversation leading up to this reelection, that this is almost never, ever mentioned, either by the press or by his opponents, or by anybody else? 

Carroll: No. Kyle, you know what, I don’t get mad at that. There is nothing I can do. I get mad about things that I can do something about. I can’t do anything about running the national conversation. 

Pope: All of us know E. Jean from her column in Elle magazine that ran for 27 years, “Ask E. Jean.” 

Carroll: I know you wrote to me frequently. 

Pope: I did. I was a pseudonym, but you know who I am. 

And then her 2019 memoir, “What Do We Need Men For?” in which she accused Donald Trump of rape in a Bergdorf’s dressing room in the 1990s. That case is now tied up in litigation. She sued Trump for defamation after he called her a liar and said he’d never met her. And then a New York judge recently rejected Trump’s bid to halt the proceedings. We’re not going to get into that, partly because it’s in the middle of litigation, and also a lot of the details are out there. 

What I want to talk to you about is this extraordinary series of pieces that you’re doing for The Atlantic, in which you interview other women who have been assaulted by Donald Trump and talk to them about their experience, both in the moment with him, and also after the disclosure. And actually, there’s a fascinating conversation you have with somebody who decided not to disclose it. 

Carroll: Wasn’t that interesting? Boy. 

Pope: It was really interesting. It was enraging, frankly, because these stories are so compelling. One, there is so much overlap in the stories that the women tell. Trump’s approach is so similar from case to case. His modus operandi is just so repetitive, and frankly, it’s so lame. I mean, he’s just thoughtless.… There was this amazing moment where this woman—

Carroll: The woman on the airplane, right, Jessica Leeds. 

Pope: Yes. She was groped by him. 

Carroll: Well, more than groped. The media uses the word grope. Nobody knows what the hell groped means. 

Two weeks ago, I talked to a woman, Kristin Anderson, who explained exactly what groping by the president is. I understand why the media has to use terms like grope, grab, kiss. Those words are useful because in certain publications, you cannot go into sexual detail. So they are shorthand. But it does the women no favors because the evangelicals and the voters just sloughed it off. If they knew what groping was, they would stop and think. Wait a minute, this man did that to that woman? 

In Jessica Leeds’s case, he reached inside her blouse and tried to pull out a breast. He was going at her with both hands, while the guy across the aisle stared. Jessica said his eyes were as big as saucers, and nobody came to her assistance. It’s amazing. 

Pope: And she saw him years later? 

Carroll: Two years later, he was at the Humane Society Gala at Saks Fifth Avenue, with all the major dress designers. She was dressed in a beautiful designer gown. And he walked in with a very pregnant Ivana. He saw her, stopped, stared and said, You’re the cunt from the airplane.  

Pope:  And the reason that that was so chilling is it just spoke to his sense that he was answerable to nobody. He could say that in public. And it wouldn’t matter, right?  

Carroll: Here is why he is answerable to nobody. I have a theory, Kyle, about why nobody does anything about all these women coming forward. First of all, I think many women voters like to hear that he grabs women, that he’s very sexual, that he’s very powerful. They will vote for him. They’re lonely, they want to be grabbed. 

Now, people are going to say, E. Jean, how can you even think that? But I know some of these voters. They’re my people. I know evangelicals. You know, I was born and raised in Indiana. There are many women out there who find this extremely attractive. And the men vote for him because he’s a leader. A man who can do this to women can do anything. It’s the mark of like a Caesar, or a Genghis Khan, or an Alexander the Great. I’m naming people who had several wives. It’s attractive in a male leader.

I paused myself before I came forward, because I knew it would rouse his base to greater heights. I think I was right. I think that people like that he does this. I think that many liberals don’t like it. Most thinking women don’t like it. But that’s what we’re living with here. And the evangelicals, by the way, their belief is that he hasn’t attacked any women lately. God has forgiven him and he’s improved. 

Pope:  Do you think that the way that these cases are covered contributes to that? What’s astonishing about your series is that these stories are told entirely from the point of view of the women. We hear pretty much only from them. It’s their view of what happened. So many other stories are sexualized, or they’re told from the point of view of the man. Do you think that changes how they’re received?  

Carroll: That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought of that. Yeah. These stories put the woman watching her life as she moves through her life. What she was like at the time it happened. What happened after she came forward. We had the shower of death threats and the miserable way these women were called liars and skanks and crazy. Inevitably, the woman’s looks are disparaged. 

So the one who comes forward knows what she’s getting into. That they came forward in 2016 and then were brave enough to do it again for The Atlantic magazine, to me, is the most astonishing part of it. My hat goes off…they’re endlessly brave. 

Pope: So how could these cases be covered differently by news outlets to make these women’s stories resonate more? 

Carroll: Start writing the real truth about sex, number one. That will never happen. So I may as well not even suggest it. The New York Times is not going to talk about Donald Trump sticking his finger into the vagina of a woman. They are just not going to do it. I mean, I can’t figure out a way they could do that. 

Pope: Was that the case before he was the president? Or do you think that’s because he’s the president? Because the reason I ask is that, when I read the coverage of Harvey Weinstein, that was explicit.  

Carroll: Well, that was because it was Megan Twohey and [Jodi] Kantor. Those two women will cross every line to get their story. We’re talking about two heroes there. They were explicit. So they really are breaking down that barrier a little bit. 

But, you know, Trump is something else. He’ll sue you at the drop of a hat. He’s already sued the Times. He’s threatened to sue every single one of these women. I think there’s a good chance that he’s going to be reelected.  

Pope: You do? 

Carroll: Oh, yeah. Don’t you?

Pope:  I don’t know. 

Carroll: Did you see who’s ahead today in South Carolina?  Lindsey Graham. And then, you know, I’m not going to give you my theories about the Russians coming in to save the election for Trump, but I think there’s a strong possibility.  

Pope:  You know, E. Jean, I was so taken aback in 2016 and I became very cynical about polls and now about coverage. 

Carroll: I know that you’re very skeptical of polls and good for you.  

 Pope: I mentioned at the top that you had a really interesting conversation with a woman, a lawyer, who also had a story to tell, but had decided, for her own reasons, not to go public with it. What do you make of that decision? I assume that you understand completely. I mean, I thought your profile of her was quite sympathetic and really hashed out the reasons that she came to this conclusion. But what do you make of it? 

Carroll: Well, she was up for partner at her law firm. Her career would have ended if she had come out against Trump. It would have ended. And she had just had a baby, if you remember from the profile. She had to weigh having her career stopped in its tracks, or not telling what happened. 

She told her mother and her mother still voted for Donald Trump. Her mother, by the way, is a doctor and abortion rights woman and a feminist. The mother voted for him because she liked her portfolio and she thought he’d do well in business. 

Pope: There was another quote from another woman saying that what happened to her after she went public was as bad as what Donald Trump did to her.  

Carroll: Oh, that’s Karena. Actually her quote was that it’s a billion times worse, what she went through. She lives in a very Republican area. Her kids go to a Republican school. She’s still being tortured. Her neighbors are still giving her the cold shoulder. You know what, Karena came forward a second time for The Atlantic. I mean, talk about being brave. 

Pope: You know, when we started this conversation, I asked how you view the fact that we’re not having a bigger conversation about this in the middle of this campaign.  

Carroll: I sit back and laugh. A lot of my life is filled with hilarity and good cheer. I know we’re doing the best we can. We have a complete clown in the White House who is sexually assaulting women. 

And I am only touching the tip of the iceberg.… We all know because we’ve heard it in my transcripts and every woman I talked to now knows two other women. But we can’t reveal that. If the women won’t come forward, they won’t come forward. So we know that the stories that are out there are just a sliver of the reality of what Trump has done to women. It is astonishing.  

Pope: Do you think people’s views towards the body of evidence here will change if he is voted out of office? Do you think that there could be criminal cases? Do you think it’s going to be any different? 

Carroll: No. Kyle, even in 2020, women come forward accusing men of sexual assault and women are not believed. That’s how it is. Men are powerful. Women lack their power. So it’s the same as it was two thousand years ago, as it was in the Renaissance, in the 1800s, the 1900s. 

And now it’s the same thing. Women come forward. They are not believed. We know that because it’s less than five percent of rape cases that the guy goes to jail, because a woman is not believed.  

Pope: Do you think that Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein were anomalous, in the sense that they were actually held to account, finally?

Carroll: Oh yeah, my God, we should have a national holiday.… Journalists did it, Kyle. If there was ever a moment to be proud, it was Megan and Jodi and Ronan [Farrow], you know. 

Your publication, you’re graduating kids out of there, they’re gonna go out and be just crazy enough to break some rules and get these stories done.  

Pope:  We should add E. Jean Carroll to that list of people. These are terrific pieces. 

Let me ask you about Elle magazine. What happened there? Why did that end? I don’t know if you want to rehash this, but I’m really curious what your communication with them was. 

Carroll: Well, when they called me to tell me that, after twenty seven years, they were not going to renew my contract, I thought they were calling to invite me to the Christmas party. I swear to God. 

You know, Hearst is a very conservative company. A great company, but very conservative. Over 85 percent, or perhaps it’s 90 percent, of their political contributions go to the Republican Party. I had a lot of Republican readers. They could not have an advice columnist advising women about their careers, for God’s sakes, and their love lives, who’s accused the president of the United States of rape. Can’t have it. I get it. And it was probably a fairly easy decision to make. 

However, they said they were sort of pissed off that I took this story to New York magazine.  

Pope: Do you believe that?  

Carroll: I think that upset them, but of course, I went to New York [because] Elle never would have run it. Can you picture Elle magazine running that story? 

Pope: No. I could picture Teen Vogue running it. There are other titles that would’ve done it, but not Elle. Were they honest with you about the reason why?

Carroll: No, no. They said, We don’t have the pages. Hilarious. They don’t have the pages. Do you have any idea what that means? I have no idea. 

Pope: How many more of these profiles will we see yet to run? 

Carroll: When do you go live with this podcast?

Pope: Tomorrow.

Carroll: Okay, the last profile will appear next Wednesday. 

Maybe you didn’t figure this out, but the way I did these profiles, I started out with Natasha [Stoynoff], who was with People. He shoved her up against the wall and kissed her. Then I went to Karena, and he grabbed her breast. And then we had the woman whose name was not used and she didn’t come forward. Then we had Jessica. He grabbed her breasts and went up her skirt. You see what I’m doing here? And then we had Alva, who is a Republican campaign worker, and in front of others, he kissed her. Then I had Kristin, he went up her skirt, squished her vagina in his fingers, squeezed it—that’s what groping is. And then I end with Jill, who barely made it out alive. So I start with the kiss and work through the female body. 

And so Jill Harth is the last. You will not believe how many times he assaulted her. It is incredible. She’s the first woman to publicly come forward. 

Pope: What has been your sense of how these pieces have landed? 

Carroll: I have no idea. Everybody went nuts for it on Twitter. But that’s a sliver. I don’t know. Do you have any idea? 

Pope: I do. My idea is that they haven’t landed like they should have. And that’s no criticism of the Atlantic, or their efforts, or certainly of what you’ve done. But I just think it speaks to what we talked about earlier, which is the receptivity that people have with this, and this sense in the news cycle that We know this, right? What can you tell us that we don’t know?

I think it’s a huge flaw in the way we frame stories and the media attention span.  

This is a very weird example to bring in, but if you look at how the New York Times has approached Trump and taxes—that’s a boring story. We know he’s a shady businessman, but they just sort of kept at it again and again. They packaged it, and they’ve just been relentless. They haven’t really cared whether, in the short term, a lot of people click on it, because they know that it’s the right thing to do. And I think the same thing applies here. Like, you just have to keep on it. Again and again and again.  

Carroll: Thank you, Kyle. I like that analogy because I’m a big fan of the Trump taxes. It was relentless every day. And you’re right, that packaging in the various parts was brilliant. 

People think they know. But honestly, they don’t know what he actually has done. They have no idea.  

Pope: Well, it’s a terrific body of work. I’m really glad to have you on. 

Carroll: Thank you so much.

The Editors are the staffers of The Delacorte Review and Columbia Journalism Review.