The US Department of Justice (DOJ) is proceeding with the controversial defence of former President Donald Trump against a defamation lawsuit brought by a woman who accused him of rape in the 1990s.
The DOJ defence of Trump against writer E Jean Carroll, who accused him of defaming her in his public denial as president that he raped her in a department store dressing room more than 20 years ago, has drawn bitter criticism – including from then-presidential candidate Joe Biden.
“Can you remember any Republican president going out there, or former Democratic president, ‘Go find that guy and prosecute him’? You ever hear that? Or: ‘By the way, I’m being sued because a woman’s accused me of rape. Represent me. Represent me,” Biden said at the time.
“What’s that all about? What is that about?”
But in its brief filed late on Monday with a federal appeals court, the Biden administration’s DOJ claimed the same legal position the DOJ under Trump outlined.
The DOJ argued it was not endorsing Trump’s conduct towards Carroll, though it asserted a law governing suits against federal officials justified the government’s move to take over the former president’s defence.
“The Department of Justice is not endorsing the allegedly tortious conduct or representing that it actually furthered the interests of the United States. Nor is a reviewing court making any such determinations in upholding the department’s certification,” the acting head of the DOJ’s Civil Division, Brian Boynton, wrote in the submission.
Boynton also stuck to the Trump administration’s DOJ stance from last September – that Trump was acting in the course of his official duties as president when he denied Carroll’s rape allegations.
— Mary L Trump (@MaryLTrump) June 8, 2021
“Speaking to the public and the press on matters of public concern is undoubtedly part of an elected official’s job,” Boynton added. “Courts have thus consistently and repeatedly held that allegedly defamatory statements made in that context are within the scope of elected officials’ employment – including when the statements were prompted by press inquiries about the official’s private life.”
The new brief acknowledges the stance made by then-Attorney General William Barr in Trump’s defence, one that drew criticism for using government lawyers to fight Carroll’s defamation suit on behalf of Trump.
“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 DOJ wrote in Monday’s reply brief. “Elected public officials can – and often must – address allegations regarding personal wrongdoing that inspire doubt about their suitability for office.”
Carroll, a longtime advice columnist for Elle magazine, decried the DOJ’s decision in a statement to Politico.
“As women across the country are standing up and holding men accountable for assault — the DOJ is trying to stop me from having that same right. I am angry! I am offended!” she said in a statement.
Her lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, said she was disturbed by the Biden administration’s decision to back Trump in the case.
“It is horrific that Donald Trump raped E Jean Carroll in a New York City department store many years ago,” Kaplan told the news site.
New, with more to come: DOJ under Biden is keeping up the previous admin’s effort to take over Trump’s defense against a defamation lawsuit filed by writer E. Jean Carroll — an effort Biden criticized during the campaign.
— Zoe Tillman (@ZoeTillman) June 8, 2021
“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. 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 brutalising any woman who has the courage to come forward.”
A district judge had previously denied in October an attempt by the DOJ to replace Trump as the defendant in the case, arguing that Trump was a federal employee and that the defamation case was therefore filed against the US.
The move would have most likely scuttled the lawsuit, as the federal government cannot be sued for defamation.