In an unusual move, the Department of Justice has taken over the defense of Donald Trump in a defamation lawsuit by E. Jean Carroll, who accused Trump of raping her in the 1990s.
While a law called the Federal Tort Claims Act does provide federal government employees immunity from many defamation lawsuits, legal experts pointed out that it has not been used to protect a president, especially for incidents that occurred before he entered office.
“The question is, 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?” Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor, asked.
Carroll, a longtime columnist for Elle Magazine, wrote in a book excerpt published in New York magazine in June 2019 that Trump raped her in the dressing room of Bergdorf Goodman, a luxury department store in Manhattan in late 1995 or early 1996. She claims he threw her against the dressing room wall before pulling down her tights and forcing himself on her. The author is also certain that security cameras captured both of them moving together before the rape took place. Carroll’s lawyers also requested that Trump provide a DNA sample to determine whether his DNA is on a dress that the victim was wearing that day.
Last November, Carroll sued Trump, claiming that he defamed her publicly by saying that he couldn’t have assaulted her because Carroll was “not my type.”
But on Wednesday, reports surfaced of the DOJ’s intervention in the case, and Attorney General William Barr defended the move, calling it a “normal application” of a statute known as the Westfall Act.
During a news conference, Barr asserted that the statute allows the federal government to take over Trump’s legal defense because Trump was acting in the scope of his role as president when he denied Carroll’s claims.
The interference of the DOJ could potentially put an end to the case altogether.
“Trump’s effort to wield the power of the U.S. government to evade responsibility for his private misconduct is without precedent,” Carroll’s lawyer, Roberta A. Kaplan, said, adding that it ”shows even more starkly how far he is willing to go to prevent the truth from coming out.”