Federal court rejects Trump presidential immunity defense in defamation lawsuit News
"Donald Trump" - Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0
Federal court rejects Trump presidential immunity defense in defamation lawsuit

A US federal court in New York rejected on Thursday former President Donald Trump’s late claim of absolute presidential immunity to fend off a defamation lawsuit filed by writer E. Jean Carroll. The decision came a month after a New York jury found Trump liable for sexually abusing and defaming Carroll, resulting in $5 million in damages.

Carroll filed the lawsuit in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) after Trump accused Carroll in June 2019 of lying about her sexual assault claim against him in order to increase her book sales. She claims Trump’s statements were defamatory and caused her professional and reputational harm as well as emotional pain and suffering.

Trump moved for the court to dismiss this case during the summary judgment phase. A court only grants summary judgment when there are no issues of material fact, or a fact that might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under governing law, are present.

Filed in February 2020, Trump’s answer to Carroll’s complaint included nine affirmative defenses, like constitutional immunity of the allegedly defamatory statements and that her complaint failed to state a cause of action, among others.  Noticeably absent from the list included Trump’s claim of absolute presidential immunity to protect him from liability because he was president at the time of the statements.

In Nixon v. Fitzgerald, the US Supreme Court held that the president is entitled to “absolute Presidential immunity from damages liability for acts within the ‘outer perimeter’ of his official responsibility.” Trump argued the statements occurred in the “outer perimeter” of his official responsibility because he made those statements “in direct response to Carroll’s allegations which impugned his character, and in turn, threatened his ability to effectively govern the nation.” Ultimately, the court rejected Trump’s claim because failure to raise an affirmative defense in an answer to a complaint results in waiver of that defense.

The court also rejected Trump’s request to amend his initial answer to raise the defense of absolute presidential immunity because it felt this would be pointless. In response to Trump’s argument, the court stated, “Even assuming the president’s decision publicly to deny any accusation of personal wrongdoing comes within the outer perimeter of his official duties, it does not follow that the president’s own personal attacks on his or her accuser equally fall within that boundary.” Essentially, the court stated that a president’s personal attacks against an accuser are not within any scope of a president’s official duties.

In addition to this pending case, Trump recently pleaded not guilty to 37 criminal charges, including willful retention of national defense information, in a Florida federal court. Outside of federal court, Trump also pleaded not guilty in April to 34 counts of “falsifying business records in the first degree” in a New York state case led by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.