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President Donald Trump wants to use the Department of Justice to defend him in a defamation case brought by writer E. Jean Carroll, who has accused him of rape—a move that Carroll’s lawyers are now calling an “extreme position [that] would distort the law and dishonor the office of the presidency.”
After Carroll came forward to accuse Trump of cornering and raping her in a Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan in mid-1990s, Trump denied her claims. He defended himself by saying that Carroll was “not my type.”
Carroll sued Trump, setting off several months of legal maneuvering in state court, where Trump used a private legal team. Then, in September, the Justice Department stepped in. The Department claimed that Trump’s denials occurred as part of his official duties as president, meaning that he could be defended by government lawyers—and, by extension, with taxpayer money.
By getting involved, the Justice Department essentially sought to make the United States the defendant in Carroll’s case, rather than Trump himself.
In a filing late Monday, lawyers for Carroll said that logic was unacceptable. The Justice Department, they wrote, “intervened to shield Trump from legal accountability only after his state court stall tactics, procedural gambits, and assertions of immunity were all rejected.”
“There is not a single person in the United States—not the President and not anyone else—whose job description includes slandering women they sexually assaulted,” wrote Carroll’s legal team, which includes Roberta Kaplan, a co-founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. “That should not be a controversial proposition.”
The Justice Department didn’t immediately reply to a VICE News request for comment, but Attorney General Bill Barr defended the Justice Department’s involvement in the case in September.
“That's the so-called Westfall statue, which says that if someone is an employee of the executive branch or the legislative, and they are sued for a state tort that occurred in the course of them working for the government—of their duties for the government—then they can have it certified to be moved to federal court, and the United States is then substituted as the party," Barr told NBC News. He added, “This is done frequently.”
Legal experts told the New York Times, however, that presidents have rarely, if ever, been shielded from defamation lawsuits stemming from actions they allegedly took before entering office.
“The Justice Department opines that elected officials always act within the scope of their office when speaking with the press, even about personal matters,” Carroll’s attorneys wrote in the Monday filing. “No legal authority holds that elected officials may—within the scope of their federal employment—defame anyone, at any time, for any reason, no matter how personal their motives or statements, so long as a journalist overhears them.”
Carroll, a longtime columnist at Elle magazine, sued Trump last November. She first detailed her allegations against him in an excerpt of her memoir in New York Magazine in June 2019. Carroll has since tried to procure a DNA sample from Trump, to compare it to a sample found on a dress she says she was wearing during the alleged assault.
Trump has claimed he never met Carroll, despite a 1987 photo of the pair together; the president has said that the photo is misleading.