NEW YORK (AP) - Former President Donald Trump 's lawyers began his defense Thursday with the expectation that he'll be called as a witness to fight a lawsuit seeking over $10 million for things he said about advice columnist E. Jean Carroll after she accused him of sexual assault.
Trump attorney Alina Habba called as her first witness a retired television journalist and friend of Carroll — Frances Carol Martin — to testify at the Manhattan federal court trial, asking how she expressed her concern to her friend about her own safety after Carroll went public with her claims about Trump in 2019 as she was publicizing a memoir.
Martin acknowledged that Carroll had assured her that she didn't have any major security concerns as the public learned about her claims that Trump had raped her in the dressing room of a midtown Manhattan luxury department store in spring 1996.
Earlier in the trial, Carroll had testified about death threats that she continues to receive and her need to worry about her personal safety because Trump continues making public statements about her.
Martin's testimony came after Carroll's lawyers finished the presentation of their case by showing jurors video clips of the Republican front-runner in this year's presidential race saying at a Jan. 17 campaign rally that Carroll's claims were a "made-up, fabricated story" and a 2022 deposition deriding her as "a liar and a very sick person."
The trial that began last week is the penalty phase of a defamation lawsuit over statements Trump made while president in 2019, when he claimed Carroll was lying to sell books and interfere politically. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan has instructed jurors to accept the findings of another jury that last May concluded Trump has sexually abused Carroll in 1996 and defamed her with statements in October 2022 similar to those he made in 2019. That jury awarded Carroll $5 million.
Kaplan said last year’s verdict means the current jury only needs to decide how much more money, if any, Trump owes Carroll for his 2019 statements.
Kaplan has ruled that if Trump testifies, he will be barred from testifying about subjects that would conflict with last year’s verdict. He will not, for instance, be permitted to Carroll made up her sexual assault claims or that she was motivated by her book deal or for political reasons.
Trump, 77, attended the trial two of three days last week and let the jury know — through muttered comments and gestures like shaking his head — that he was disgusted with the case against him.
After Carroll's lawyers rested Thursday, Habba asked for a directed verdict in Trump's favor, saying that it was clear from Carroll's testimony that there was insufficient proof to allow the jury to find damages.
"Your honor, Ms. Carroll didn’t prove her case, period," she said. Kaplan denied the request.
Prior to resting, Carroll’s lawyers called a single witness — Roberta Myers — who testified that Carroll was a "truthteller," an accomplished writer with a long history of unleashing a "tremendous amount of empathy and a great sense of humor" in her popular monthly advice column while Myers was editor-in-chief of Elle magazine from 2000 to 2017.
It was after her testimony that Carroll's attorneys showed the video clips, including portions of Trump's October 2022 deposition when he denied knowing who Carroll was.
One snippet shown to jurors was when Trump during his deposition misidentified Carroll as his ex-wife, Marla Maples.
If everything goes as planned, Trump could be on the witness stand before the end of the day. Trump, fresh off big victories in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday and the Iowa caucuses last week, appeared relatively subdued in court compared to his appearances last week. He mostly gazed straight ahead, expressionless, though he seemed to move his lips along with the movement of his mouth in the video showing him saying the trial was rigged.
The trial had been suspended since early Monday because of a juror’s illness. When it resumed Thursday, the judge said two jurors were being "socially distanced" from the others in the jury box.
Trump denies ever knowing Carroll, 80. He did not testify or attend last year's trial, a decision he now says he regrets.
At the current trial, Trump has already tested the judge's patience. After he complained to his lawyers last week about a "witch hunt" and a "con job" within earshot of jurors, Kaplan threatened to eject him from the courtroom if it happened again. "I would love it," Trump said. Later that day, Trump told a news conference Kaplan was a "nasty judge" and that Carroll’s allegation was "a made-up, fabricated story."
When not in court, he has repeatedly made pronouncements on his social network similar to statements at stake in the trial. Carroll's attorneys have put some of those statements before the jury, arguing that the only way to stop Trump from defaming Carroll is to hit him in a big way financially.
Trump's attorneys have tried to show the jury through their cross-examination of witnesses that Carroll has gained a measure of fame and financial rewards through taking on Trump that outweigh the death threats and other venom slung at her through social media.
Habba has told the judge that he might testify because, even with the judge’s restrictions, "he can still offer considerable testimony in his defense."
Among other things, he can testify about his state of mind when he made the statements that got him sued and about how his comments came as Carroll was doing media interviews and journalists were asking him about her, Habba wrote.
She also suggested he could "show his lack of ill will or spite" by talking about how he "corrected" his initial denial of having ever met Carroll.
The current trial is in addition to four criminal cases Trump faces as the presidential primary season heats up. He has been juggling court and campaign appearances, using both to argue that he’s being persecuted by Democrats terrified of his possible election.