In a highly unusual legal maneuver, the Department of Justice moved on Tuesday to replace President Donald Trump’s private lawyers and defend him against a defamation lawsuit brought in a New York state court by the author E. Jean Carroll, who has accused him of raping her in a Manhattan department store in the 1990s.
Lawyers for the Justice Department said in court papers that Trump was acting in his official capacity as president when he denied ever knowing Carroll and thus could be defended in court by government lawyers — in effect underwritten by taxpayer money.
Citing a law called the Federal Tort Claims Act, the department lawyers asserted the right to take the case from Trump’s private lawyers and move the matter from state court to federal court. The law gives employees of the federal government immunity from lawsuits, though legal experts said that it has rarely, if ever, been used before to protect a president.
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 U.S. 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 in the statement, “and shows even more starkly how far he is willing to go to prevent the truth from coming out.”
The Justice Department’s motion came a month after a state judge in New York issued a ruling that potentially opened the door to Trump being deposed in the case before the election in November. Carroll’s lawyers have also requested that Trump provide a DNA sample to determine whether his genetic material is on a dress that Carroll said she was wearing at the time of the encounter.
The government filing was yet another attempt by Trump to stall the defamation case, Kaplan said, noting he has used the tactic several times in Carroll’s suit and other legal matters.
“Trump’s strategy in this case from day one has been delay, delay, and more delay,” Kaplan said, adding, “Our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Carroll, a writer, sued Trump last November, claiming that he lied by publicly denying he had ever met her. In a memoir published last summer, she maintained that Trump sexually assaulted her nearly 30 years ago in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman in Midtown Manhattan. In her suit, she accused the president of defaming her by publicly stating that he could not have raped because she “wasn’t his type.”
A White House official said on Tuesday night that precedent existed under the Federal Tort Claims Act for the Justice Department to step in and defend Trump in the newly chosen venue: the U.S. District Court in Manhattan. The case will immediately be moved to federal court and Carroll’s lawyers will have to ask a federal judge to return the matter to state court.
Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas, said the removal motion by the Justice Department was extremely unusual, noting that government lawyers had never attempted to stretch the legal boundaries of the Federal Tort Claims Act to include the actions of a president taken before he entered office.