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Justice Department blasts 'crude' Trump words while backing him in E. Jean Carroll case

Erik Larson, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

NEW YORK — The Biden administration sided with Donald Trump in urging a federal appeals court to find that he couldn’t be sued for defamation while he was president, which would allow him to dodge a lawsuit by a woman who claims he raped her two decades ago.

New York advice columnist E. Jean Carroll went public in 2019 with her claim that Trump sexually assaulted her and then sued him for defamation when he said she was “totally lying” and “not my type.” But the U.S. Justice Department argued Friday that he was a government employee at the time, and can’t be sued for defamation.

“The former president made crude and offensive comments in response to the very serious accusations of sexual assault made by Ms. Carroll — I’m not here to defend or justify those comments,” Justice Department lawyer Mark R. Freeman told a three-judge panel in Manhattan. “I’m here because any president facing a public accusation of this kind, which the media was very interested in, would feel obliged to answer questions from the public.”

Lawyers for Carroll and Trump were to speak later Friday.

 

While Trump was still president, his administration first intervened in the case to argue that the Justice Department should be substituted for Trump in the case because his denial of Carroll’s claim fell within the scope of his duties. Substitution — allowed under the Westfall Act of 1988 — would result in Carroll’s case being dismissed because the U.S. can’t be sued for defamation.

Carroll’s supporters and many Democrats expected Biden’s DOJ to withdraw that view, but instead it doubled down, saying in court filings that while it didn’t support Trump’s comments about Carroll, the Westfall Act gave broad protections from litigation to government employees, including the sitting president.

The Westfall Act has previously been applied to other presidents in litigation, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, though under different circumstances.

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