Tuesday, November 24, 2020
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Feds take over defense in libel suit against Trump

Carroll’s lawyers immediately denounced the maneuver and said it was preposterous that Trump was engaged in official business when he disputed Carroll’s allegation, including by declaring of the journalist and former “Saturday Night Live“ writer: “She’s not my type.”

“Even in today’s world, that argument is shocking,” Carroll lawyer Roberta Kaplan said in a statement. “It offends me as a lawyer, and offends me even more as a citizen. Trump’s effort to wield the power of the U.S. government to evade responsibility for his private misconduct is without precedent, and shows even more starkly how far he is willing to go to prevent the truth from coming out.”

Kaplan also noted that the move came as Trump faced a deadline to appeal a ruling from a New York judge requiring him to provide a DNA sample and sit for a deposition about the episode. The move to federal court will likely scuttle that ruling.

The Justice Department’s legal filings provided little insight about why officials stepped in 10 months after the suit was filed, but a career attorney who oversees the defense of tort cases for the federal government suggested that new facts had come to light that led to the decision.

“On the basis of information now available with respect to the incidents alleged in the complaint … Defendant Donald J. Trump was acting within the scope of his office as President of the United States at the time of the alleged conduct,” Civil Division Torts Branch Director James Tuohey Jr., said in a certification justifying the move.

Tuohey did not elaborate, but another filing by DOJ lawyers pointed to five cases where defamation suits against federal officials have been handled as suits against the government.

“Numerous courts have recognized that elected officials act within the scope of their office or employment when speaking with the press, including with respect to personal matters, and have therefore approved the substitution of the United States in defamation actions,” the Justice Department attorneys wrote.

They cited a suit filed last year alleging that Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Debra Haaland (D-N.M.) libeled students from a Catholic high school in Kentucky who got into a confrontation with a Native American activist at the Lincoln Memorial. The Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that a judge was correct to shut down the case.

That suit involved no allegations of personal misconduct by Warren or Haaland, but Justice Department attorneys also pointed to a 2006 D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that accepted arguments from lawyers for former Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-N.C.) that a press interview he gave about his separation from his wife was within the scope of his official duties.

In the exchange, Ballenger said one reason for the separation was that his wife was uncomfortable living across the street from the offices of the Council on American Islamic Relations, which he called “the fundraising arm for Hezbollah.” The group sued Ballenger for slander, but a judge agreed that the congressman was seeking to preserve his official reputation when he addressed the question about his marriage.

Carroll claimed in a book and in interviews last year that in 1995 or 1996 she ran into Trump at a Bergdorf Goodman store and agreed to help him pick out a gift. Carroll says the pair eventually ended up in a lingerie section dressing room where Trump assaulted and raped her.

Trump issued several denials of Carroll’s story, including a written statement in which he insisted he’d never met her, despite a photo she has of the pair together.

“She is trying to sell a new book — that should indicate her motivation. It should be sold in the fiction section,” Trump’s statement said. He also denied her account in an exchange with reporters on the White House South Lawn before boarding Marine One and in an Oval Office interview with The Hill newspaper.

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