DOJ files rare request to represent Trump in columnist’s defamation lawsuit
President Donald Trump. Photo from Shutterstock.com.
In an unusual move Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice moved to intervene in a defamation lawsuit brought against President Donald Trump by E. Jean Carroll, an author and advice columnist who has accused him of sexual assault.
The DOJ argued in its Sept. 8 motion that its lawyers should replace Trump’s private legal team because he made the comments that led to the lawsuit in June 2019—after he was already in office.
Citing the Westfall Act, which amended the Federal Tort Claims Act, the DOJ said the U.S. attorney general may certify whether a federal employee “was acting within the scope of his office or employment at the time of the incident out of which the claim arose.”
“Once the attorney general certifies that the defendant federal officer was acting within the scope of his office at the relevant time, the statute itself provides that the United States ‘shall’ be substituted as the sole defendant in the action,” the DOJ argued.
Carroll filed the lawsuit accusing Trump of defamation after he denied raping her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the 1990s. The November 2019 suit claims that Trump’s denial was accompanied by “a swarm of related lies,” including his accusation that she was lying to increase book sales and to advance a conspiracy with the Democratic Party.
Carroll spoke out against the DOJ’s move on Twitter on Tuesday.
“TRUMP HURLS BILL BARR AT ME,” she wrote, accusing Trump of using U.S. Attorney General William Barr to fight her in her case.
She also highlighted her lawyer Roberta Kaplan’s response to the DOJ’s reasoning. Kaplan said “even in today’s world, that argument is shocking.”
“It offends me as a lawyer and offends me even more as a citizen,” Kaplan wrote. “Trump’s effort to wield the power of the U.S. government to evade responsibility for his private misconduct is without precedent and shows even more starkly how far he is willing to go to prevent the truth from coming out.”
Kaplan also called into question the timing of the DOJ’s motion. A New York state court ruled last month that Carroll’s lawsuit against Trump could proceed, and he would soon be asked to provide a DNA sample.
While the move to defend Trump at taxpayers’ expense comes amid criticism that the DOJ has acted in Trump’s personal interests, a White House official told CNN that precedent requires the United States to be the defendant in the case.
“The department’s action adheres to the plain language and intent of the statute, which the courts have confirmed applies when elected officials, such as members of Congress, respond to press inquiries including with respect to personal matters,” the official said.
However, CNN legal analyst Elie Honig called that a “wild stretch.”
“I can’t remotely conceive how DOJ can argue with a straight face that it is somehow within the official duties of the president to deny a claim that he committed sexual assault years before he took office,” Honig told CNN.