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Justice Department reverses course on defending Trump in E. Jean Carroll case

DOJ backed off its earlier position that Trump was acting within the scope of his presidential duties when he made “crude and disrespectful” comments about the writer.
E. Jean Carroll; Former President Donald Trump.
E. Jean Carroll and former President Donald Trump.AFP; Getty Images

The Justice Department has abandoned plans to defend Donald Trump in a lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll, saying in a court filing Tuesday that it no longer believes he was acting within the scope of his presidential duties in 2019 when he allegedly defamed her while denying her rape accusation.

The "Department has determined that there is no longer a sufficient basis to conclude that the former President was motivated by 'more than an insignificant' desire to serve the United States Government" when he disparaged Carroll in remarks to reporters four years ago.

Trump's remarks came shortly after Carroll, a writer, alleged that he raped her in the dressing room of a New York City department store in the mid-1990s. Carroll then sued Trump for defamation, and the Justice Department at the time moved to represent him, arguing he should have total immunity for his comments because he "was acting within the scope of his office and employment as President of the United States when he made the statements."

In a letter Tuesday to lawyers involved in the case, the Justice Department said it had changed its position given new evidence, including a jury verdict this year that found Trump liable for sexually assaulting Carroll and defamatory comments he made about her after he left the White House.

The reversal lessens Trump’s chances of escaping liability in Carroll’s remaining lawsuit against him.

An attorney for Trump did not have an immediate comment. The former president said the DOJ's decision was "all part of the political Witch Hunt" in a string of posts on his social media site in which he continued to maintain his innocence in Carroll's civil case, calling it "a Miscarriage of Justice and a total Scam."

Roberta Kaplan, an attorney for Carroll, welcomed the Justice Department's decision.

“We are grateful that the Department of Justice has reconsidered its position," Kaplan said in a statement. "We have always believed that Donald Trump made his defamatory statements about our client in June 2019 out of personal animus, ill will, and spite, and not as President of the United States."

Carroll's other defamation suit against Trump, which was filed last year and included complaints about his calling her claims a "hoax" after he left the White House, resulted in a $5 million jury verdict against Trump in May. He has appealed the verdict and asked for a new trial.

That case wound up going to trial first because Carroll's original lawsuit — the one the Justice Department took a position on Tuesday — was tied up in appeals over whether Trump's 2019 comments were protected under the Westfall Act, which gives federal employees “absolute immunity” from lawsuits based on conduct “in the course of their official duties.”

Then-Attorney General William Barr said the statute applied in that case because the media had asked Trump to comment on the allegations.

The judge presiding over the case, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, disagreed and said that he didn't believe the Westfall Act applied to the presidency and that Trump's remarks about something that allegedly happened more than two decades ago weren't within the scope of his official conduct as president.

His ruling led to a lengthy appeals process, in which the Justice Department's defense of Trump extended into the Biden administration. The case was sent back to Kaplan, who isn't related to Carroll's attorney, this year after having gone through two appeals courts.

One of those courts held that the government should consider in Westfall Act cases whether the alleged conduct was motivated by people trying to do their government jobs.

Trump had maintained that he had to speak out forcefully against Carroll because her claims could damage his presidency.

In its letter Tuesday, the Justice Department cited Trump's continued trashing of Carroll even after he left office as proof that his motivations were personal and not governmental.

"And a jury has now found that Mr. Trump sexually assaulted Ms. Carroll long before he became President. That history supports an inference that Mr. Trump was motivated by a 'personal grievance' stemming from events that occurred many years prior to Mr. Trump’s presidency," the Justice Department said.

The case is scheduled to go to trial in January.

Carroll is seeking at least $10 million in damages for comments Trump made about her in the White House and in the aftermath of the $5 million jury verdict.

Trump has denied any wrongdoing in the case and maintains that Carroll's claims are made up.