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Justice Dept. intervenes on behalf of Trump in defamation case brought by woman who accused him of rape

Attorney General William P. Barr invoked the Westfall Act as an explanation for the Justice Dept.'s intervention in the defamation case against President Trump. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/Reuters)

The Justice Department on Tuesday intervened in the defamation lawsuit brought by a woman who says President Trump raped her years ago, moving the matter to federal court and signaling it wants to make the U.S. government — rather than Trump himself — the defendant in the case.

In filings in federal court in Manhattan, the Justice Department asserted that Trump was “acting within the scope of his office as President of the United States” when he denied during interviews in 2019 that he had raped journalist E. Jean Carroll more than two decades ago in a New York City department store. Carroll sued Trump over that denial in November.

The maneuver removes the case — at least for now — from state court in New York, where a judge last month had rejected Trump’s bid for a delay and put Carroll’s team back on course to seek a DNA sample and an under-oath interview from the president. It also means that Justice Department lawyers will be essentially aiding Trump’s defense, and taxpayers could be on the hook for any potential damages, if the U.S. government is allowed to stand in for Trump. Winning damages against the government, though, would be more unlikely than in a suit against Trump, as the notion of “sovereign immunity” gives the government and its employees broad protection from lawsuits.

Barr defends Justice Dept. intervention in Trump defamation suit

Justice Department lawyers said that because Trump was acting as president when he denied the allegations, a judge should “substitute the United States for President Trump as defendant.”

In a statement, Roberta Kaplan, Carroll’s lawyer, blasted the department’s filing. She noted that because a New York state court had rejected Trump’s bid for a delay, he was “soon going to be required to produce documents, provide a DNA sample, and sit for a deposition.”

“Realizing that there was no valid basis to appeal that decision in the New York courts, on the very day that he would have been required to appeal, Trump instead enlisted the U.S. Department of Justice to replace his private lawyers and argue that when he lied about sexually assaulting our client, explaining that she ‘wasn’t his type,’ he was acting in his official capacity as President of the United States,” 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. 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.”

Speaking to reporters June 22, 2019, then-President Trump denied claims by magazine writer E. Jean Carroll, who says Trump attacked her in 1995 or early 1996. (Video: The Washington Post)

Throughout his tenure as president, Trump has faced persistent criticism for comments and other actions that legal observers see as bending the Justice Department to his political will.

He repeatedly attacked his first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, over his recusal from the investigation into whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia to influence the 2016 election, even hinting publicly that if Sessions had not done so, the probe would have been shut down. He asked associates, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” apparently frustrated that he did not have an attorney who was as willing to fight as the legendary New York lawyer was.

In a loss for Trump, judge says woman who accused him of rape can proceed with defamation suit

Trump has publicly expressed dismay about criminal cases against his allies, and, in those involving friend Roger Stone and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, he has seen the Justice Department intervene in unusual ways.

He also has called for prosecutions of his political rivals. Last month, Trump seemed to hint in an interview on Fox Business that the legacy of Attorney General William P. Barr would be defined by whether he investigated former president Barack Obama and former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s opponent in the 2020 campaign, as part of a review Barr ordered of the Russia case. Barr has said neither man is under investigation.

“Bill Barr has the chance to be the greatest of all time, but if he wants to be politically correct, he’ll be just another guy, because he knows all the answers, he knows what they have, and it goes right to Obama and it goes right to Biden,” Trump said.

The Justice Department has previously intervened in lawsuits in which Trump has personally sued those who are investigating him and seeking to get information on his private finances.

Carroll said in a statement that the Justice Department’s actions “demonstrate that Trump will do everything possible, including using the full powers of the federal government, to block discovery from going forward in my case before the upcoming election to try to prevent a jury from ever deciding which one of us is lying.”

“But Trump underestimates me, and he also has underestimated the American people,” Carroll said.

A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment. A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to detail internal discussions, said the 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 department’s filings were signed by Jeffrey Bossert Clark, the acting attorney general in charge of the Civil Division, as well as James G. Touhey Jr., director of the torts branch, and attorney Stephen R. Terrell.

Citing the Federal Tort Claims Act, the department said that Barr has the authority under federal law to move such a case to federal court if he certifies a federal employee was acting within the scope of their job during an incident, though he had delegated that authority to Touhey.

Touhey, the department said in a filing, “certified that the defendant employee, President Trump, was acting within the scope of his office or employment at the time of the incident out of which the claim arose.”

What will happen next is unclear — though the proceedings will almost surely stall Carroll’s case. The department did not immediately raise any defenses of Trump. A federal judge will first have to consider whether to grant the request to make the U.S. government the defendant in the case.

Carroll publicly alleged the assault for the first time in June 2019, in a published excerpt of a memoir. She said that after running into Trump at Bergdorf Goodman in late 1995 or early 1996, they chatted and shopped together before he attacked her in a dressing room.

Philip Rucker and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.