U.S. Can’t Replace Trump as Defendant in Rape Accuser’s Suit


A U.S. bid to have a defamation suit against President Donald Trump tossed out was rejected by a judge, who ruled that the government couldn’t substitute itself as the defendant in a case brought by a New York advice columnist.

The decision stems from a lawsuit by E. Jean Carroll, who went public last year with her claim that the president raped her two decades ago in a department store dressing room. She sued after Trump called her a politically motivated liar.

U.S. District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan in Manhattan on Tuesday rejected the Justice Department’s argument that Trump’s statements were made as part of his presidential duties. Had the judge allowed the department to substitute the U.S. for Trump, it would have led to dismissal of the case because the government can’t be sued for defamation.

Kaplan ruled that Trump isn’t a federal “employee” under a law that allows the U.S. to replace government workers as defendants in lawsuits over actions taken as part of their job. Even if he were, the “undisputed facts” of the case show Trump’s comment about Carroll can’t be considered part of his presidential duties, the judge wrote.

“His comments concerned an alleged sexual assault that took place several decades before he took office, and the allegations have no relationship to the official business of the United States,” Kaplan said. “To conclude otherwise would require the court to adopt a view that virtually everything the president does is within the public interest by virtue of his office.”

In June 2019, after Carroll publicly aired her claims, Trump told reporters: “I’ll say it with great respect: Number one, she’s not my type. Number two, it never happened. It never happened.”

The Justice Department didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment on the ruling.

Kaplan said the government made a seemingly reasonable argument that Trump needed to refute Carroll’s claim in order to “govern effectively,” but he said the Justice Department’s position went too far.

“Accepting it would mean that a president is free to defame anyone who criticizes his conduct or impugns his character -- without adverse consequences to that president and no matter what injury he inflicts on the person defamed,” the judge wrote.

Kaplan said in his decision that resolving the case may eventually hinge on whether Carroll can prove she was attacked by Trump.

“The question whether Mr. Trump in fact raped Ms. Carroll appears to be at the heart of her lawsuit,” Kaplan wrote. “That is so because the truth or falsity of a defendant’s alleged defamatory statements can be dispositive of any defamation case.”

Carroll made the claim in an article she wrote for New York magazine. At the time, she was working on a book that included an account of the alleged attack, which she says took place in an “uncharacteristically empty” dressing room in 1995 or 1996, after she bumped into Trump while shopping.

“As the Judge recognized today, the question whether President Trump raped me 20 years ago in a department store is at ‘the heart’ of this lawsuit,” Carroll said in an emailed statement. “We can finally return to answering that question, and getting the truth out.”

The Justice Department moved Carroll’s case from state court to federal court on Sept. 8 and took over Trump’s defense after a state judge ruled that the president couldn’t put off the suit any longer. Carroll called the move a delay tactic to avoid renewed demands for Trump to be deposed and submit to a DNA test during the final weeks before the presidential election.

Trump has long denied allegations made by other women as well, claiming they were seeking attention or trying to smear his name for political reasons.

A Justice Department team led by Acting Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark invoked the Federal Tort Claims Act in its filing last month to argue that the president was acting officially when he called Carroll a liar, requiring the substitution of the U.S. as the defendant.

Attorney General William Barr stood behind the department’s move, calling a backlash against it a “little tempest” resulting from the “bizarre political environment in which we live.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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