Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Federal judge nixes DOJ's attempt to represent Trump in defamation case

Steve Benen (MSNBC/MaddowBlog) reports that a federal Judge blocks DOJ’s gambit in Trump’s E. Jean Carroll case. After a woman accused Trump of sexual assault, he lashed out at his accuser, prompting a defamation case. The DOJ wants to intervene; a judge won’t let it.

Donald Trump’s private legal team have repeatedly tried and failed to make E. Jean Carroll’s defamation lawsuit go away. As regular readers may recall, the Justice Department filed court documents last month, declaring its intention to represent the president in the case.

That doesn’t appear to be going well. CNBC reported this morning

A federal judge on Tuesday rejected an effort by the Department of Justice to have the United States government replace President Donald Trump in a lawsuit in which he is accused of defaming writer E. Jean Carroll after she said he raped her in the mid–1990s. The DOJ had argued that Trump was acting in his capacity as a government employee when he said Carroll was lying and motivated by money. Because of that, the DOJ said, the government should be the defendant in Carroll’s civil lawsuit, not the president.

U.S. District Court Judge Lewis Kaplan rejected the Justice Department’s arguments, clearing the way for Carroll and her attorneys to sue the president for defamation personally.

For those who may need a refresher on the controversy, let’s revisit how we arrived at this point.

Carroll spent years as a prominent writer, media figure, and advice columnist, including having hosted a show on America’s Talking, which later became MSNBC. As regular readers may recall, in June 2019, she also joined a long list of women who’ve accused Trump of sexual misconduct.

Indeed, in a book published last year, Carroll alleged an encounter in a New York department store in the mid–1990s, which the writer described as a violent sexual assault committed by the future president. Though definitively proving or disproving Carroll’s claim is difficult – there is no security footage to review – the writer said she confided in two friends shortly after the alleged incident, telling them at the time what she said occurred. Those friends soon after came forward with on-the-record accounts.

She also wrote in her book, “The Donna Karan coatdress still hangs on the back of my closet door, unworn and unlaundered since that evening.” It’s led Carroll to seek Trump’s DNA as part of her case.

The president has denied the claim, arguing, among other things, that his latest accuser is a “liar” who isn’t his “type.” Following those comments, Carroll sued Trump for defamation. (When the allegations first surfaced over the summer, Trump issued a statement claiming that he’d never met E. Jean Carroll. There is, however, a photograph of the two interacting at an event in the mid–1980s.)

In August, a New York judge rejected the latest in a series of efforts to delay the case, and soon after, the Trump/Barr Justice Department decided to intervene.

In fact, the Justice Department peddled a very strange argument, asserting that the president was “acting within the scope of his office” when he lashed out at the woman who accused him of sexual assault, which meant not only that American taxpayers should pay for Trump’s legal defense, but also that the United States government should be the defendant in the case.

And since the government can’t be sued for defamation, the gambit appeared to be an effort on the part of the Justice Department to make the entire case go away.

Former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal described the Justice Department’s position last month as “insane,” adding that DOJ officials “are doing everything they can to appear to be Trump’s personal law firm.”

The judge in the case, not surprisingly, also failed to find the Justice Department’s argument persuasive, concluding that Trump clearly was not acting in his official capacity when he publicly targeted Carroll. “His comments concerned an alleged sexual assault that took place several decades before he took office, and the allegations have no relationship to the official business of the United States,” Kaplan wrote.

Today’s ruling will very likely be appealed. Watch this space.

Postscript: It’s also worth noting for context that the public was confronted with a recording from 2005 in which Trump was heard bragging about committing sexual assaults. The Republican said that he kisses women he considers attractive – “I don’t even wait,” Trump claimed at the time – which he said he could get away with because of his public profile.

“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump said on the recording. “You can do anything. Grab ’em by the p***y.”

Among the claims raised by Carroll was an allegation, denied by the president, that Trump “forced his fingers around my private area.”

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