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Justice Department Intervenes To Take Over Trump's Defense In Defamation Lawsuit

On Twitter, E. Jean Carroll (right) slammed the Department of Justice's attempt to take over her defamation suit against President Trump, telling him to "bring it."
Seth Wenig
On Twitter, E. Jean Carroll (right) slammed the Department of Justice's attempt to take over her defamation suit against President Trump, telling him to "bring it."

Updated at 12:17 p.m. ET

The U.S. Justice Department on Tuesday moved to assume responsibility for defending President Trump in a defamation lawsuit brought by a woman who says Trump raped her in the 1990s.

E. Jean Carroll filed suit in New York state court last year after Trump, answering reporters' questions, denied knowing her and accused her of lying. Carroll, a columnist for Elle magazine, wrote in a memoir that Trump had raped her in the dressing room of a Manhattan department store in 1995 or 1996.

In an unusual five-page filing in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, the Justice Department argued that Trump's remarks were made in the performance of his official duties as president and that therefore government attorneys should assume Trump's defense from his private lawyers.

The filing asked the court to designate the United States, rather than Trump, as the defendant in Carroll's defamation suit and to move the case from state to federal court. Federal officials are generally immune from charges of defamation. If the DOJ's filing is successful, it would effectively bring Carroll's case to an end.

Carroll immediately condemned the legal maneuver, writing in a series of tweets, "TRUMP HURLS BILL BARR AT ME."

Addressing the president, Carroll said she is "ready! So is every woman who has ever been silenced!"


Robbie Kaplan, Carroll's attorney, said in a statement that the Justice Department's argument is "shocking."

"It offends me as a lawyer, and offends me even more as a citizen," Kaplan wrote.

Carroll's lawsuit had reached a critical stage in state court. Last month, a judge rejected the president's request to temporarily halt the proceedings. Carroll has asked the judge to order Trump to provide a DNA sample as part of pretrial discovery. Trump may also be required to sit for a deposition if the case proceeds.

Barr: Standard practice

Attorney General William Barr said on Wednesday that the involvement of the Justice Department was routine.

Part of Trump's legal defense in the matter includes the position that he is shielded by a federal law protecting federal employees in defamation suits that are based on comments made during their official duties. Even remarks about things that took place before their government service are shielded, according to this legal position.

The attorney general said on Wednesday that the standard practice is for a federal employee being sued to alert the Justice Department so that it can defend her or him, which the White House has done in this case, Barr said.

The law and court precedents are clear that presidents enjoy the legal shield in question and that, as a federal worker in this situation, it's the Justice Department's role to become involved, Barr said.

"This was a normal application of the law. The law is clear, it is done frequently, and the little tempest that's going on is largely because of the bizarre political environment in which we live and ... and I'll just leave it at that," Barr said.

It wasn't immediately clear what role, if any, Barr himself had played in the process leading up to the Justice Department's submission of its brief on behalf of Trump in the New York case.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mark Katkov
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