The civil trial alleging rape against former President Donald Trump is underway. And that a rape trial involving a former president of the United States is not bigger news is news in and of itself (but that’s another issue). The main headline from the trial today stems from Joe Tacopina’s cross-examination of Trump’s accuser, E. Jean Carroll. Tacopina is Trump’s lead attorney on the case, a “pit bull” style attorney that the media loves to hate.
According to The Daily Beast, Tacopina was “derisive, derogatory and dismissive” in “the most tone-deaf cross-examination in a rape trial since To Kill A Mockingbird.”
I’m not a fan of Tacopina’s style or demeanor. He seems deeply unpleasant. Unnecessarily unpleasant. And it doesn’t sound like the judge on the case is a fan either. But I think what outlets like The Daily Beast don’t appreciate is that Tacopina doesn’t owe Carroll anything. Carroll accused Tacopina’s client of rape, and Tacopina’s job is to demonstrate that his client is innocent. One of the most effective ways to do that is to make Carroll look like she’s full of it.
The standards for decorum, the deference and respect owed to woman claiming rape throughout society, are not necessarily owed in the court of law when the claim is coming from a plaintiff. Here, Carroll’s primary identity is not victim, but plaintiff.
And plaintiffs aren’t usually afforded much leeway from defense attorneys, no matter how sensitive the claims. Really, Tacopina can be as dismissive of Carroll as he wants. I mean, that’s kind of his job, being so persuasively dismissive of Carroll that the jury dismisses her, too.
Portions of the media don’t seem to be struggling with this concept, however. According to The Daily Beast, “Tacopina insinuated that Ms. Carroll only had a “story” that she was raped by Donald Trump.” And right there is a fundamental misunderstanding in the The Daily Beast’s coverage of the trial. The alternative would be what? To accept Carroll’s story as hard fact? To operate under the assumption that Trump did it, simply because Carroll said he did it? That seems to be the standard at The Daily Beast but fortunately, that standard doesn’t apply in the judicial system.
Tacopina has a vital function, not just with respect to his client, but to society-at-large, to vet Carroll’s claims. Both civil and criminal legal systems depend upon vigorous defenses to work properly. What’s the alternative? Every plaintiff and every prosecutor’s claims are shown deference? Every defendant is incarcerated or sued?
Of course not. The way that outcome is through guys like Tacopina, combing over a plaintiff’s claims, poking holes in the claims, testing the logic. If someone wants to make a claim as serious as rape, and try those claims publicly, using public funds to do so, those claims had better be legitimate. The defense attorney is a mechanism to ensure that those claims are legitimate. It’s not hyperbole to say, that as unpleasant as Tacopina may be, he is providing a valuable public service.
Now, I have no idea what happened between Trump and Carroll in that dressing room, three decades ago. Only two people know what happened: Trump and Carroll. And each has incentive to be dishonest about what happened. And after thirty years, each may have a fuzzy recollection of what actually happened.
And while Trump has a reputation for being a sleaze, and may well have acted inappropriately, perhaps illegally, in that dressing room, he’s not guilty just because the plaintiff said so.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.