A federal judge concluded Tuesday that the US Department of Justice (DOJ) could not intervene in a defamation lawsuit filed against President Donald Trump by a woman who accused the president of rape, and whom the president called a liar.
The issue arose when E. Jean Carroll, an author, journalist and advice columnist, accused Trump of raping her in the 1990s in a department store. The allegations came to public light when Carroll included the accusation in a book she wrote that was published in 2019.
In response to the accusation, Trump called Carroll a liar. Carroll filed a lawsuit against Trump on defamation grounds and alleged that by making a knowingly false statement accusing Carroll of lying about the sexual assault, Trump had injured her reputation, and she was entitled to damages.
The lawsuit was initially filed in state court, and the president and his personal lawyers defended the case as if he were a private citizen. His lawyer attempted to argue that he was immune from suit so long as he held the office of the presidency, but the state trial judge rejected this argument.
The next step of the legal proceedings surprised many observers. The US government intervened in the case. The Attorney General concluded that Trump’s statements calling Carroll a liar were made within his role as the president. Thus, the DOJ was able to personally defend Trump in the case, and the case was moved to a federal district court. Furthermore, the DOJ moved to have the US substitute for Trump as the defendant. This would have almost certainly assured the end of the lawsuit because, under the doctrine of sovereign immunity, the US can only be sued for money damages when it consents to being sued. Furthermore, under the Westfall Act, government employees acting under their official scope of employment have absolute immunity from tort lawsuits.
The judge concluded that the president did not fall under the definition of “employee of the Government” within the meaning of the Westfall Act, and that even if he was classified as such, his allegedly defamatory statements were not made within the official scope of his employment. Therefore, the DOJ’s motion to allow the US to substitute for Trump as the defendant was denied.
Under the judge’s decision, the DOJ may no longer intervene to defend Trump. The case will now return to the state court for further litigation.