The U.S. Justice Department requested to take over President Donald Trump’s defense in a defamation suit brough by E. Jean Carroll, a writer who has accused Trump of sexual assault. The move, to use tax-funded federal lawyers to handle a personal lawsuit for the President, has already wrought hefty criticism. But the Justice Department insists that it has legal grounds to defend Trump, as he is accused of defaming Carroll while serving as United States President.
Carroll’s Original Accusation
Last June, Elle Magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll wrote in a book that Donald Trump had raped her in 1995. Soon after the accusation, Trump told The Hill that he did not commit the offense, and had never even met Carroll. Furthermore, he told reporters that he would never pursue Carroll because she was “not my type.”
Following, Carroll sued Trump for defamation in November 2019. She claimed that the President had lied about never knowing her, and thus had sullied her reputation by making her seem like a liar. As proof of their familiarity, Carroll presented a photograph from 1987, that features Trump, Carroll, and her former husband together at a party. But Trump said the picture was “misleading.”
Justice Department Steps In
This week, Justice Department lawyers said in court documents that Trump was acting in his official duties as President when he denied knowing Carroll. As a result, the Justice Department believes it has a legal right to defend the President, essentially using taxpayer money to cover Trump’s legal interests. But there may be a few strategic reasons to replace Trump’s personal lawyers with federal government attorneys.
First, the law gives federal employees immunity from defamation cases, though experts say such exemptions have rarely been used to protect a sitting president. Still, by drafting Justice Department lawyers for his defense, Trump might be able to delay the case. This could help him avoid any embarrassing disclosures before the November election. Additionally, Trump may be able to avoid submitting to a deposition or submitting DNA samples per a request by Carroll’s lawyer, Roberta Kaplan.
Responding to the news that the Justice Department would take over Trump’s defense, Kaplan said it was “shocking.”
“Trump’s effort to wield the power of the U.S. government to evade responsibility for his private misconduct is without precedent,” the lawyer said. She added that it “shows even more starkly how far he is willing to go to prevent the truth from coming out.”
Meanwhile, Steve Vladeck, a law professor at University of Texas, wonders whether bringing in the Justice Department is even legal. After all, Vladeck notes, Carroll has accused Trump of raping her decades before he even entered politics. “The question is,” Vladeck posed, “is it really within the scope of the law for government lawyers to defend someone accused of lying about a rape when he wasn’t even president yet?”