The former president’s rape trial moved into a pivotal phase on Tuesday, as jurors heard from a former businesswoman who reinforced E. Jean Carroll’s rape story—by testifying that Donald Trump shoved his hand up her skirt during a cross-country flight.
“Trump decided to kiss me and grope me,” testified Jessica Leeds, an 81-year-old woman who recalled a dreadful business flight to New York nearly four decades ago. She described how they chatted for hours and ate together, only to have Trump suddenly strike.
“There was no conversation. It was out of the blue… it was like a tussle… he was touching my breast. It was like he had 40 zillion hands,” Leeds said.
Leeds’ unsettling testimony—about what Trump allegedly did and how he resorted to misogynistic comments to deny it ever happened—was used to bolster Carroll’s claims, which now threaten to harm Trump’s image and empty his bank accounts.
During the past week, Carroll’s lawyers have methodically built her case. Carroll herself testified in detail how Trump sexually assaulted her in a fitting room within the lingerie department at the city’s high-end Bergdorf Goodman clothing store. And they’ve already used Trump’s own words—how you can grab women by their genitalia when you’re a celebrity—against him. But Carroll’s lawyers on Tuesday began to draw attention to other accusations made against the real estate mogul.
Leeds, a longtime Wall Street stockbroker who retired to the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, described her own encounter.
On the witness stand, Leeds said she didn’t even know who Trump was when a flight stewardess snatched her from the back of the plane and told her she had an invitation up in first class.
“I wasn’t aware of the social scene or the real estate scene in New York City,” said Leeds, who was then a traveling sales representative living in Connecticut.
She described sitting in an aisle seat next to Trump, who sat by the window in a row that faced a wall known as the bulkhead. Within minutes, she said, he pounced on her aggressively. She testified that when he ran his hand up her skirt, she gathered the strength to get up and storm back to her original seat in the rear of the plane’s cabin.
Earlier in the trial, Trump’s lawyers made much of the fact that Carroll didn’t scream during her alleged attack at Bergdorf Goodman. On Tuesday, her lawyers seized an opportunity to remind the jury of how brutish that expectation is, with attorney Michael Ferrara asking Leeds to explain her silence that day.
“It never occurred to me to yell,” she said.
“Why not?” Ferrara asked.
“I don’t know,” she responded, having noted that a voice inside her head kept asking, “Where is the stewardess? Why doesn’t somebody come and help me?”
Leeds also reminded the courtroom that there were different societal norms back then, and men expected women to keep quiet about commonplace sexual harassment.
“It never occurred to me to tell anybody,” Leeds said, describing how she waited in her seat until everyone left the plane so as to avoid facing Trump again on her way out.
After a lunch break, Leeds elicited gasps from the courtroom when she testified that she ran into Trump again in 1981—during a Humane Society gala in Manhattan. She claimed that the real estate developer was with his pregnant wife, Ivana, when he spotted her and said, "I remember you. You're that cunt from the airplane."
When it was the other side's turn, Trump defense lawyer Joe Tacopina prodded Leeds with questions meant to cast doubt on her version of the events—noting that, like Carroll, she stayed quiet for decades, has forgotten exactly when it happened, and only went public when Trump became a political powerhouse.
"I had to wiggle my way out," Leeds told him.
"And no one said a word. Including you," Tacopina shot back, much later adding. "Not a single person to corroborate your story?"
He also noted that Trump somehow recognized Leeds at the gala two years later, despite the fact that Leeds had drastically changed her look: the long-haired brunette in a brown tweed skirt suit had chopped it all off and was in a ball gown.
But Carroll's lawyers managed to weaponize that line of questioning as well later that afternoon.
"Why did you cut your hair?" Ferrara asked her.
"For the same reason I stopped wearing skirts," she said, noting the persistent sexual harassment of the time that included her run-in with Trump. "I didn't want to draw attention to myself."
Tuesday marked a turning point at Trump’s rape trial, as the proverbial dams are beginning to burst—with jurors poised to hear all about the former president’s long history of misogyny and allegations of sexual misconduct.
Tacopina tried but failed to keep the jury from hearing his client speak at a 2016 presidential debate, where he shrugged off accusations of groping women and apologized for seeming crude in what he deemed “locker room” banter.
He was referring to the infamous Access Hollywood tape where he boasted about abusing his celebrity status to prey on unsuspecting beautiful women with a go-to tactic, “Grab ‘em by the pussy.” Jurors will soon be shown the tape too, and they’ll be hearing from yet another journalist who will describe the way Trump allegedly forced himself on her in 2005.
Meanwhile, Trump is notably missing from his own rape trial. While Carroll has been present every day in court since the start last Tuesday, the former president’s lawyers have given no indication that he’ll even pop his head in. Instead, he just announced that he’ll be attending a CNN town hall in New Hampshire to support his bid to return to the White House in 2024.
Trump has, however, stopped making incendiary statements online. Ever since U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan made repeated stern warnings last week about Trump potentially breaking laws by disrupting the trial from afar, the former president has ceased posting about the case on Truth Social.