WASHINGTON — A federal judge in New York ruled Tuesday that the Justice Department cannot step in to shield President Donald Trump from a libel lawsuit filed by a woman who claims he raped her in a New York City department store more than 20 years ago.
The Justice Department had sought to block the lawsuit, filed by former gossip columnist E. Jean Carroll, by arguing that the president was acting in his official capacity when he told White House reporters that she made up the rape story.
Carroll sued, claiming that his statements branding her a liar damaged her reputation. Because federal law does not permit suing public officials for libel, the government said, the lawsuit should be dismissed.
But U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan said in his ruling Tuesday that the government was wrong on two counts. First, he said, the law applies only to federal employees, defined as officers of federal agencies — a description that does not include the president, who is in a different legal status.
Second, the judge said, the president's statements about something that happened more than two decades before are not within the scope of his official conduct.
"President Trump's views on the plaintiff's sexual assault allegation may be interesting to some, but they reveal nothing about the operation of government," Kaplan wrote.
"A comment about government action, public policy, or even an election is categorically different than a comment about an alleged sexual assault that took place roughly twenty years before the president took office," he wrote.
Accepting the government's view, he said, "would mean that a president is free to defame anyone who criticizes his conduct or impugns his character."
The ruling keeps Carroll's lawsuit alive. If it had gone the other way, she would have no legal options to pursue her defamation claim.
Carroll's lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, lauded the ruling Tuesday.
"The simple truth is that President Trump defamed our client because she was brave enough to reveal that he had sexually assaulted her, and that brutal, personal attack cannot be attributed to the Office of the President," she said in statement.
The Justice Department is likely to appeal the decision. Attorney General William Barr said in September that the law has been applied to the nation's chief executive before.
"This is done frequently. It's been done for presidents. It's been done for congressmen," he said in an NBC News interview.
But Kaplan said he could find no case in which a federal court explicitly ruled that the law applies to presidents.
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for a comment on the ruling.