Biden DOJ Backs Trump Effort to Dodge Rape Accuser’s Suit
(Bloomberg) -- The Biden administration is supporting former President Donald Trump’s position that he qualified as a government employee under a law that would let him to dodge a defamation suit by E. Jean Carroll, the New York advice columnist who claims he raped her two decades ago.
Late Monday, Justice Department lawyers submitted a filing to a federal appeals court in New York adopting essentially the same position the agency staked out while Trump was still in office -- that presidents are covered broadly by a federal law which protects government workers from being personally sued for actions related to their official duties.
Carroll went public in 2019 with her allegation that Trump attacked her in a deserted area of the Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan. She then sued him for defamation after he said she was lying and accused her of conspiring with Democrats to undermine him. Trump claims his statements to the press denying Carroll’s claim were part of his official duties.
While describing Trump’s remarks about Carroll as “crude and disrespectful,” the Justice Department went on to argue in Monday’s filing that “speaking to the public and the press on matters of public concern are undoubtedly part of an elected official’s job,” even when the statements made are allegedly defamatory.
In October, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in Manhattan rejected the Justice Department’s argument that Trump’s statements were made as part of his presidential duties. Trump is now appealing that ruling.
If the appeals court agrees with the Justice Department that the U.S. should be substituted for Trump as defendant in the suit, the case would be dismissed because the government can’t be sued for defamation.
Carroll’s lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, said in an emailed statement that the Biden administration’s stance is “truly shocking” and risks depriving Carroll 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 brutalizing any woman who has the courage to come forward,” Kaplan said. “We remain confident that Judge Kaplan’s decision will be affirmed by the Second Circuit.”
The law at issue in the case, the 1988 Westfall Act, has previously been applied to other presidents in litigation, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, though under different circumstances.
The Biden administration noted in the filing that the law had also been used to block a wrongful-death and defamation lawsuit against then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was accused of causing the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi by sending sensitive information through a private e-mail server.
In the Clinton case, the federal appeals court in Washington in 2018 ruled the Westfall Act applies broadly to allegations of wrongdoing against federal employees, even when the alleged actions appear on their face to fall outside the scope fo their duties.
“Extensive precedent makes clear that alleging a federal employee violated policy or even laws in the course of her employment -- including specific allegations of defamation or of potentially criminal activities -- does not take that conduct outside the scope of employment,” the appeals court said in the Clinton case.
The lower-court case is Carroll v. Trump, 20-cv-07311, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
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