The Justice Department moved on Tuesday to substitute President Trump’s non-public authorized crew with authorities attorneys to defend him towards a defamation lawsuit by the writer E. Jean Carroll, who has accused him of raping her in a Manhattan division retailer in the 1990s.
In a extremely uncommon authorized transfer, attorneys for the Justice Department stated in court docket papers that Mr. Trump was appearing in his official capability as president when he denied ever understanding Ms. Carroll and thus may very well be defended by authorities attorneys — in impact underwritten by taxpayer cash.
Though the regulation offers workers of the federal authorities immunity from most defamation lawsuits, authorized consultants stated it has not often, if ever, been used earlier than to defend a president, particularly for actions taken earlier than he entered workplace.
“The question is,” stated Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas regulation professor, “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?”
The movement additionally successfully protects Mr. Trump from any embarrassing disclosures in the center of his marketing campaign for re-election. A state judge issued a ruling last month that potentially opened the door to Mr. Trump being deposed in the case before the election in November, and Ms. Carroll’s lawyers have also requested that he provide a DNA sample to determine whether his genetic material is on a dress that Ms. Carroll said she was wearing at the time of the encounter.
Ms. Carroll’s lawyer said in a statement issued Tuesday evening that the Justice Department’s move to intervene in the case was a “shocking” attempt to bring the resources of the United States government to bear on a private legal matter.
“Trump’s effort to wield the power of the U.S. government to evade responsibility for his private misconduct is without precedent,” the lawyer, Roberta A. Kaplan, said, “and shows even more starkly how far he is willing to go to prevent the truth from coming out.”
Ms. Carroll herself accused the president of siccing Attorney General William P. Barr against her. “TRUMP HURLS BILL BARR AT ME,” she wrote on Twitter.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment on the motion.
Citing a law called the Federal Tort Claims Act, the department lawyers asserted the right to take the case from Mr. Trump’s private lawyers and move the matter from state court to federal court.
The government filing was yet another attempt by Mr. Trump to stall the defamation case, Ms. Kaplan said, noting that he had used the tactic several times in Ms. Carroll’s suit and other legal matters.
“Trump’s strategy in this case from Day 1 has been delay, delay, and more delay,” Ms. Kaplan said, adding, “Our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Ms. Carroll sued Mr. Trump last November, claiming that he lied by publicly denying he had ever met her. A longtime columnist for Elle magazine, she wrote in a book excerpt published in New York magazine in June 2019 that Mr. Trump had thrown her up against the wall of a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman, an upscale department store in Manhattan, in late 1995 or early 1996. Then, she claimed, Mr. Trump pulled down her tights, opened his pants and forced himself on her. She also insisted that security cameras captured both of them moving together before the alleged assault inside the store.
In her suit, Ms. Carroll accused Mr. Trump of defaming her by publicly stating in an interview with The Hill newspaper in June 2019 in the Oval Office that the assault never happened and that he could not have raped her because she was “not my type.” Mr. Trump, according to Ms. Carroll’s suit, also issued an official statement that same month saying she was lying about the alleged assault.
Mr. Trump said he had never met Ms. Carroll, but the two were photographed together at a party in 1987 with her former husband. The president has called the image misleading.
More than a dozen women have accused Mr. Trump of sexual misconduct that they said took place before he was elected president.
Mr. Trump’s private lawyers sought to have Ms. Carroll’s suit dismissed by arguing that the Constitution gave a sitting president immunity against civil suits in state court.
The department’s request to represent Mr. Trump in the case is in keeping with other arguments that the president has made in state court in New York, said Ben Berwick, a former Justice Department lawyer who now works at Protect Democracy, a legal group that is involved in multiple lawsuits against the Trump administration.
“The president has argued in multiple cases that he is immune from civil lawsuits in state courts, and at every turn that argument has been rejected,” Mr. Berwick said. The president has fought cases in New York against his company and his foundation, among other matters.
But Justice Verna L. Saunders of State Supreme Court in Manhattan recently rejected those arguments, citing a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found Mr. Trump could not block a subpoena for his tax returns by the Manhattan prosecutors.
A White House official said Tuesday night that precedent existed under the Federal Tort Claims Act for the Justice Department to step in and defend Mr. Trump in the newly chosen venue: the Federal District Court in Manhattan. Ms. Carroll’s case will immediately be moved to federal court and her lawyers will have to ask a judge there to return the matter to state court.
The closest similar case came in 2005, Mr. Vladeck said, when a federal court in Washington ruled that government lawyers could defend Cass Ballenger, then a Republican representative from North Carolina, in a defamation lawsuit brought against him by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Mr. Vladeck said that while it was fairly uncommon for the Justice Department to assume the defense of a private matter on behalf of any government official, it was even more extraordinary for department lawyers to seek to shield Mr. Trump’s personal behavior behind a screen of “sovereign immunity.” If the federal judge in Manhattan assigned to the case agreed with the department’s arguments, Ms. Carroll’s lawsuit would effectively be over, Mr. Vladeck said.
Some current and former Justice Department lawyers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, echoed Mr. Vladeck’s concerns, saying they were stunned that the department had been asked to defend Mr. Trump in Ms. Carroll’s case. By moving to take control of the matter, the department had raised a critical question, the lawyers said: Was it truly within the scope of a president’s duties to comment on the physical appearance of a woman who had accused him of rape?
But rare as it was to use the Federal Tort Claims Act in this way, it was hardly the first time that Mr. Trump’s Justice Department stretched legal norms on his behalf.
Last year, for example, Mr. Barr gave a public summary of the findings of Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation that a federal judge later called “distorted” and “misleading.”
Mr. Barr’s department also intervened in the criminal case of Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, requesting to drop the prosecution — a move that a federal judge has held up while he is scrutinizing it.
Katie Benner and Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.