President Joe Biden’s Justice Department has made the surprising decision to continue the previous administration’s efforts to defend Donald Trump against a defamation suit brought by woman he’d accused of lying about being raped by him. As a presidential candidate, Biden had criticized the agency’s involvement in the case.
In its latest brief on Monday, Justice Department lawyers continued to argue that Trump was just another employee of the federal government when he accused columnist E. Jean Carroll of lying — a move that led Carroll to file a defamation lawsuit against the then-president. Carroll wrote in a June 2019 New York Magazine article and reiterated in her lawsuit that Trump raped her in a Manhattan department store’s dressing room in the 1990s.
“When members of the White House media asked then-President Trump to respond to Ms. Carroll’s serious allegations of wrongdoing, their questions were posed to him in his capacity as President,” the Justice Department wrote. “Elected public officials can — and often must — address allegations regarding personal wrongdoing that inspire doubt about their suitability for office.”
The government’s lawyers argued that the law continues to give Trump immunity and government-funded legal help because nothing in the statutes “suggests that they exempt from their coverage the President of the United States.”
In October, a federal judge in Manhattan denied Trump’s request that he be replaced by the U.S. government as the defendant in the defamation suit. The then-president’s Justice Department, led by Attorney General William Barr, argued that it should step in as the defendant because Trump was forced to respond to Carroll’s lawsuit to prove he was physically and mentally fit for the job of president.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan of the Southern District of New York said that a law protecting federal employees from being sued individually for things they do within the scope of their employment didn’t apply to a president. But even if it did, Kaplan said, Trump’s public denials of Carroll’s rape allegation would have come outside the scope of his employment.
Barr and Trump’s personal lawyers appealed Kaplan’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit on Jan. 15, where the case is pending.
“It is horrific that Donald Trump raped E. Jean Carroll in a New York City department store many years ago. But it is truly shocking that the current Department of Justice would allow Donald Trump to get away with lying about it, thereby depriving our client of her day in court,” Carroll’s lawyer Roberta Kaplan said in a statement to BuzzFeed News.
“The DOJ’s position is not only legally wrong, it is morally wrong since it would give federal officials free license to cover up private sexual misconduct by publicly brutalizing any woman who has the courage to come forward,” she added. “Calling a woman you sexually assaulted a ‘liar,’ a ‘slut,’ or ‘not my type,’ as Donald Trump did here, is not the official act of an American president.”
Carroll is one of about two dozen women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, harassment or assault.
The effort by Barr’s Justice Department was widely criticized as a misuse of government resources on behalf of Trump. During a town hall event in October, Biden highlighted Carroll’s case as an example of Trump trying to use the Justice Department as his “own law firm.”