A federal judge Tuesday blocked the Justice Department's effort to intervene in a defamation case against President Donald Trump brought by E. Jean Carroll who claimed the president disparaged her when he denied her claim that Trump raped her in the mid-1990s.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan rejected the government's central argument that Trump was acting in his official duties as president last year when he denied magazine writer Carroll's allegation that he had raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in New York City.
The Justice Department's intervention was seen as an effort to shield the president from the potentially damaging legal action in the midst of a re-election campaign. The judge's ruling effectively keeps Carroll's claim alive.
"The undisputed facts demonstrate that President Trump was not acting in furtherance of any duties owed to any arguable employer when he made the statements at issue," the judge wrote. "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. To conclude otherwise would require the Court to adopt a view that virtually everything the president does is within the public interest by virtue of his office. The government has provided no support for that theory, and the Court rejects it as too expansive."
Carroll said that she was "happy" with the judge's decision and would continue pursuing her case.
"When I spoke out about what Donald Trump did to me in a department store dressing room, I was speaking out against an individual," Carroll said. "When Donald Trump called me a liar and denied that he had ever met me, he was not speaking on behalf of the United States ... As the Judge recognized today, the question whether President Trump raped me twenty years ago in a department store is at 'the heart' of this lawsuit."
Carroll's lawyer said the president's current office should not be used to shield his prior personal conduct.
"The simple truth is that President Trump defamed our client because she was brave enough to reveal that he had sexually assaulted her, and that brutal, personal attack cannot be attributed to the Office of the President," attorney Roberta Kaplan said. She described the Justice Department's argument as "startling."
The Justice Department did not immediately respond to the ruling.
Last month, the Justice Department's Civil Division submitted court papers to substitute the United States as the defendant in the case, citing the Westfall Act which provides public officials broad protections against claims based on their public statements.
"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 filing by Justice lawyer Stephen Terrell said.
In his Tuesday ruling, the judge said the government's argument went "much too far."
"Accepting it would mean that a president is free defame anyone who criticizes his conduct or impugns his character – without adverse consequences to that president and no matter what injury he inflicts on the person defamed," the judge concluded. "Indeed, the same would be true for many government officials, who plausibly could argue that criticism of their behavior or character, even if completely unrelated to their government employment, would undermine their ability to perform effectively while in office."
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The former Elle magazine writer says Trump raped her at Bergdorf Goodman, a luxury New York City department store, in the mid-1990s. She accused him of defamation in 2019 after he said the incident never occurred.
A New York state court has rejected Trump’s claim of immunity from the private lawsuit. Carroll has been seeking a DNA sample as possible evidence and to have Trump deposed under oath.
But the state proceedings were put on hold when the Justice Department sought to intervene.
Attorney General William Barr has defended his department's action as routine under the Westfall Act, which allows state law tort claims against federal employees to be moved to federal court, with the United States as the defendant.
"This was a normal application of the law. The law is clear. It is done frequently," Barr said last month.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Justice Dept. can't represent Trump in E. Jean Carroll defamation case