The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) took the unprecedented step on Tuesday evening of seeking to defend President Trump against a private lawsuit by advice columnist E. Jean Carroll who has accused Trump of sexual assault. Carroll sued Trump for defamation after he denied ever having met her and accused her of lying.
Numerous legal analysts immediately decried the move as a “debasement” of the DOJ by Attorney General William Barr.
“So now Barr has decided (1) that Trump somehow was acting *in his official capacity as president* when he called E. Jean Carroll a liar for accusing him of sexual assault, and (2) taxpayers should foot the bill for Trump’s defense,” former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst Elie Honig said in a tweet. “Another utter debasement of DOJ by Barr.”
In an attempt to justify its intervention in the private defamation lawsuit, the Justice Department argued in new court filings that Trump was acting in his official capacity as chief executive of the U.S. government when he said Carroll was lying about him having perpetrated sexual assault against her in the 1990s.
Carroll, who was also the former advice columnist for ELLE, published a book in June 2019 in which she accuses Trump of having raped her in the 1990s. In the same month, Trump denied the allegations, mocked her and called her a liar. In response, Carroll filed a defamation lawsuit against Trump last November.
Carroll is seeking to collect DNA evidence from Trump to support her allegations. Trump has claimed the two never met, but a photograph from 1987 shows them both in attendance at the same party.
Last month, a state judge ruled that Carroll’s defamation suit can continue forward, and that she can continue to seek the DNA evidence from Trump. According to Carroll’s lawyer Robbie Kaplan, this week would have been the deadline for the president to appeal that decision.
Instead, Trump “enlisted the U.S. Department of Justice to replace his private lawyers and argue that when he lied about sexually assaulting our client…. He was acting in his official capacity as President of the United States,” Kaplan said in a statement.
To make that argument, the DOJ is citing the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), using language from that law to say that the matter belongs in federal courts instead of a New York state court.
“Because President Trump was acting within the scope of his office or employment at the time of the incident out of which the plaintiff’s claim arose, the United States will file a motion to substitute itself for President Trump in this action for any claim for which the FTCA provides the exclusive remedy,” DOJ court filings said.
The final decision on whether the DOJ can intervene on the case, and whether it will be moved from the New York state court to the federal court system, will ultimately be up to a federal judge to decide.
The move is a highly unusual one, as the DOJ is supposed to involve itself in matters of federal law, not private lawsuits that may impact government employees, including the president.
Joyce Alene, the former U.S. Attorney in Birmingham during the Obama administration, is just one of the many legal analysts who have decried the DOJ’s intervention on behalf of Trump.
“DOJ gives legal representation to fed’l employees sued for actions w/in the scope of their employment,” Alene tweeted. “So, we’re now footing the bill for Trump’s defense, based on the ludicrous claim he was acting as POTUS when he called @ejeancarroll a liar.”
Carroll herself spoke out about the court filing by the DOJ on Tuesday night. “TRUMP HURLS BILL BARR AT ME,” she said. “Just when @realDonaldTrump is required to produce documents and DNA in discovery, he sics the DOJ on us.”