“I had goosebumps when we won”: Donald Trump accuser Natasha Stoynoff on her key testimony in the E. Jean Carroll suit
Journalist Natasha Stoynoff says she was sexually assaulted by Donald Trump in 2005. Last month, her account contributed to a historic verdict that found the former president liable for sexual assault and defamation
In the late ’90s, Toronto journalist Natasha Stoynoff moved to Manhattan to take a job at People magazine. In 2004, she started covering the pop cultural renaissance of Donald Trump as the ’80s real estate mogul’s popularity spiked with his hit series The Apprentice. Stoynoff interviewed the future POTUS several times before a December 2005 visit to Mar-a-Lago. She was there to cover the wedding anniversary of Donald and Melania Trump, who was seven months pregnant. When Melania went upstairs for a wardrobe change, Trump invited Stoynoff to have a look at his ballroom. She agreed, and she says that, when she entered the room, he slammed the door behind her.
More than a decade later, Stoynoff came forward with her story that Trump had pushed her against a wall and forced his tongue down her throat. The admission made her a hero to some and a target to members of the MAGA crowd, who harassed Stoynoff to the point that she moved back to Canada following Trump’s presidential win. Since then, she’s done her best to put that day in 2005 behind her—until 2019, when she was approached by E. Jean Carroll, the now 79-year-old journalist who says that, in the mid ’90s, Trump sexually assaulted her in the change room of a Bergdorf Goodman department store. Her claim finally made it to civil court last month, and Stoynoff was called to testify as a corroborating witness.
In May, a jury found Trump liable for sexual assault and defamation (based on his claims that Carroll’s story was a hoax) with damages of $5 million. “To have played any part in this victory is just so wonderful,” says Stoynoff, whose testimony was crucial in the ruling. Since then, Carroll has launched a second defamation suit against Trump, and Trump has launched a countersuit, suggesting that this legal saga is far from over. Here, Stoynoff tells Toronto Life why Trump’s lawyer couldn’t take her down and how it felt to finally see her abuser held accountable.
Let’s start with the moment Donald Trump was found liable for the sexual assault and defamation. Were you in the courtroom when the verdict came in?
I would have been in the courtroom, but after my testimony, I went to stay with a friend in upstate New York—the same woman who was my boss at People magazine at the time of the incident. She and I have remained good friends, and she was at the trial to support me. I had assumed that it would take a while to reach a verdict, but then they came to a decision in something like three hours. There was no way I could get back, so when we heard that there was a verdict, we turned on CNN, and pretty soon we saw the headline. We jumped up and down and screamed and cried. It was goosebumps, euphoria, so many years of baggage lifted off my shoulders. To finally be believed by a jury after so many years of being called a liar—that was really something.
Okay, let’s rewind to how you ended up working at People in the early aughts. You grew up in Toronto, right?
That’s right. I did my degree in English at York University, and then I went to Ryerson (now Toronto Metropolitan University) for their grad program in journalism, which I never actually finished. During the same week as my exams, I got a job with the Toronto Star to go to LA and cover the Oscars—there were two Canadians nominated that year. I asked my professors if we could work around it, but they said no, which still really frustrates me. Covering celebrities for the Star was something I started doing as a teenager. I had a friend who worked in the gift shop at the old Four Seasons, and I would go there and hang out with her and then take pictures of the celebrities who came and sell them to the Star. That led to me working as the Toronto correspondent for People. In the late ’90s, I moved to Manhattan to work at the magazine full time. I think I may have interviewed Trump before The Apprentice, but it was after the show exploded that they decided they needed a writer dedicated to the Trump beat, so that was me.
Before he assaulted you, you conducted several interviews with the future president. Did you have a sense, at that point, that he could be dangerous, or did he just seem like a delusional blowhard?
Ha—I like those options. I would say that, for a while, we had a good working relationship. I attended their wedding reception to cover the event for People, and Melania hugged me. I was aware of Trump’s reputation as someone who “likes the ladies,” but I definitely hadn’t heard any stories of him grabbing anybody or anything like that. He was more buffoonish. Every time I interviewed him, he would ask me out for dinner, always to the same place, this high-end steak restaurant in Brooklyn. I know he was married, but that’s pretty typical in Hollywood. I remember thinking to myself, There is no way I could be capable of carrying on a full dinner’s worth of conversation with this person.
There’s only so much you can say about a fancy steak.
Exactly. It’s not like he’s going to want to talk about classic literature or the great poets, but I definitely didn’t see him as someone who was threatening. It didn’t occur to me that this was because I’d never been alone in a room with him.
You testified that, in December 2005, Trump pushed you up against a wall and forced his tongue into your mouth. Did you consider going public about it at the time?
Not at all. Maybe if he had grabbed a more intimate body part it would have been different, but at the time I didn’t even understand that what had happened to me would be considered sexual assault. I thought it was bad behaviour but not something illegal or something the police could be involved in. Those kinds of things happened to women of my generation all the time. If anything, after the incident, I spent time thinking about what I might have done to allow something like that to happen—Could I have behaved differently? Were my friendliness or my smile misinterpreted? That’s something I mentioned during my testimony; I think I referred to my reporting style as being “Canadian nice,” which is just a reflection of who I am as a person. That changed after what happened. For a long time, when I was interviewing men, I was very reserved and very cautious. I didn’t think I had been traumatized, but now I realize that I was.
Did you tell anyone about what happened?
I told a few people, including my supervisor at People. I asked to be removed from covering Trump immediately. Of course that was okay, but the majority of my colleagues didn’t know the whole story, so I guess to them it may have looked like a demotion. Covering Trump was a big gig at the magazine, so it’s possible that my career suffered because I had to step away. I stayed at the magazine for another few years before leaving in 2009 to focus on books and screenwriting. I did lose one job because of what had happened, but that was after I came forward in 2016. I was working on a screenplay based on a book that I had written, and the subject worried about my public association with Trump. Which is funny because, if anything, I think that would have been a sales boost.
Obviously 2016 was the year of the US election, but was there a specific moment that made you decide to come forward?
When Trump won the nomination in the summer of 2016, People wanted to amp up coverage again. Only a couple of staff members knew what had happened to me. So one day they were in a story meeting discussing what they could do on Trump, and my friend spoke up and asked, “Why are we planning all of these nice stories after what he did to Natasha?” Everyone in the room was like, What? What do you mean? Shortly afterward, I got a call from an editor saying that, if I wanted to write about what had happened, they would provide a platform. At first I said no.
Had any other women come forward yet?
Jill Harth had come forward earlier that year, and maybe there were others. What I know for sure is that a bunch of us came out around the same time, after the Access Hollywood tapes. I was at a restaurant with a couple of friends when that story came out. My first reaction was relief, just to learn that I wasn’t alone, but then shortly afterward I felt sick, realizing that maybe if I had spoken out earlier, I could have warned these other women. If I had been warned, I wouldn’t have gone into a room alone with him. That was really hard, but I still wasn’t wanting to go public, and then a few days later it was that famous debate where Anderson Cooper asked Trump, “Have you ever kissed a woman without her consent?” Trump said no, he hadn’t, and I thought, Okay, that’s it—it’s time for me to speak up.
And everyone learned the truth and nobody voted for Trump and we all lived happily ever after, right?
I know. Wasn’t that so great? Honestly, the weeks and months after coming forward were not easy, although I had it better than some women who were harassed in person. Most of what I experienced was on social media—people calling me a liar and a lot worse. There were also threats, people saying they were going to show up at my door and using all kinds of disgusting language. My husband and I decided to move back to Canada shortly after the election. I just felt so disappointed in the country, and I thought to myself, This would never happen in Canada. Canada felt like a safer place, or at least a saner one. We have been here since then, back and forth between Toronto and a family place in Quebec.
E. Jean Carroll came forward with allegations of being raped by Trump in a June 2019 article in New York magazine. Did you know of her before then?
No. That article was the first time I heard her story. After I read it, I sent her a note through her professional website, but I don’t think she ever got it. And then a mutual connection, political pundit George Conway, gave me her personal email, and I got in touch. I just wanted to thank her for her bravery, and she was so gracious. We met for the first time over lunch in New York. At that time, I was back and forth quite a bit, and then Covid hit.
Over twenty women have now come forward with sexual assault allegations against the former president. Why do you think you were one of only two women asked to testify?
I would say that my story had a lot of corroboration, meaning I had told a number of people what had happened back when it happened: two colleagues at People, my journalism professor at Ryerson, several friends and family members. This was years before Trump was a political candidate, so I think that was helpful in terms of anyone trying to suggest a political agenda. And then the other thing is that my story is very well documented in terms of the exact date and even the exact timing of what happened. We even have a photo of me at Mar-a-Lago with the Trumps on the day of the incident, whereas E. Jean was alone with Trump at the time of her assault, and she doesn’t know the exact date.
Trump’s legal team tried to keep you out of the courtroom. On what grounds?
Yes, they filed several motions. I am not a legal expert, but I think what they were saying is that what happened to me was not the same as what happened to E. Jean because he hadn’t grabbed me by the you-know-what. Which is true, but there were also a lot of similarities in our experiences. Both of us had a door slammed; we were both pushed against a wall. I think my testimony was helpful in establishing a pattern of behaviour.
How were you feeling before your testimony? Did you have a lucky breakfast?
There was no way I could eat—I was too nervous. I was in a hotel room across the street from the courthouse, so I could see everything from my balcony, the press arriving. It was all so incredibly nerve-racking, but then I ended up running into Trump’s lawyer Joe Tacopina right before I took the stand. He was talking to E. Jean’s lawyer when I walked into the building. I introduced myself, and when he realized who I was, he said to me, “I heard you beat Tyson.”
I’m a boxer—it’s something I started doing when I moved to the States, and I really fell in love with it. At one point, I got a chance to spar with Mike Tyson, and I guess Trump’s lawyer had read about that; I was also aware that he was a big boxing fan. We ended up showing each other our uppercuts, our right hooks, all in the hallway of the federal court building, ten minutes before I was set to testify.
Do you think that was a strategy on his part? Perhaps trying to lull you into a false sense of security?
I’m not sure. What I do know is that he really grilled E. Jean following her testimony, so that was what I was preparing for. I had run through all of the scenarios and made sure I was prepared. And then, when it was time for cross-examination, he had only one question: “Are you involved in any litigation against Donald Trump?” I said no, and then he said, “No further questions.”
Legal experts have suggested that the cross-examination was so brief because your testimony was so airtight. One even called you the Canadian MVP of the whole proceedings.
Yeah, I read that, and obviously it is so flattering. I would say that, in the moment I took the stand, everything else just fell away and I was able to tell my story with confidence and certainty. I don’t want this to come off the wrong way, but it was sort of what you hear about an athlete being in the zone and making that perfect shot. Really, though, it was just such an honour to help another woman achieve justice. I am so grateful.
Have you gotten a chance to celebrate with E. Jean yet? Any idea of what she plans to do with her $5-million settlement?
I have no idea, but I do know that a second suit against Trump is going forward, so she will be busy. She really is amazing. Trump did everything he could to put her off, but she wouldn’t give up.
And now Trump is suing her for defamation. Thoughts?
Right, and last week he was asking for a retrial because the damages were excessive. It’s delay, delay, delay. He hates to lose. That’s all I can really say about that.
I’ve got to say that, at least on this side of the border, the various cases against Trump have really started to blend together. Endless charges and indictments, but it feels like nothing ever happens.
I know. That was one of the reasons the judgment in E. Jean’s case was so gratifying—finally a ruling against him. It’s not a “guilty” verdict because it’s civil court, but it’s a legal ruling that comes with consequences. It does feel like people have become desensitized, though. His behaviour is arguably worse than ever, but people are no longer capable of outrage. Or they are in the group that will support him no matter what. At first I thought that those people didn’t believe the stories of women like me, but now I think it’s that they do believe us; they just don’t care.
Are you still wanting to move back to the States, or is it better to wait until after 2024?
I’m a bit torn. I’m very worried about the next election, but I don’t want this person to take away my New York dream. It’s what I’ve wanted ever since I was a kid, and I miss being there. I will get back, one way or another.
In 2021, you launched a petition to have the name of Trump Street in Ottawa changed, for obvious reasons. Any update?
Yes. The people who live on the street voted in February of 2021, and it was a tie, so nothing changed. But I think partly that was because of the pandemic and people being focused on other things. I’m going to try again and see if I can bring some people on board now that Trump has been twice indicted, twice impeached and found liable for sexual assault. I will go door to door if I have to.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.