NEW YORK – The Justice Department is asking to take over President Donald Trump's defense in a defamation lawsuit from a writer who accused him of rape, and federal lawyers asked a court Tuesday to allow a move that could put the American people on the hook for any money she might be awarded.
After New York state courts turned down Trump's request to delay E. Jean Carroll's suit, Justice Department lawyers filed court papers aiming to shift the case into federal court and to substitute the U.S. for Trump as the defendant. That means the federal government, rather than Trump himself, might have to pay damages if any are awarded.
The move to intervene is in keeping with a Justice Department that time and again has advanced a broad vision of executive power and has moved to shield Trump from legal exposure, most notably by arguing that actions taken to choke off the Russia investigation fell within the scope of his constitutional authorities and were therefore permissible.
It also comes amid concerns that Attorney General William Barr has gone out of his way to intervene in other legal cases involving Trump or his allies. Barr tried to decrease the amount of prison time his office sought for Trump ally Roger Stone following a criminal trial where he was found guilty. (Stone's sentence was later commuted by Trump.) Barr's Justice Department has acted to dismiss its own case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Carroll’s lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, called the department's argument “shocking.”
“It offends me as a lawyer and offends me even more as a citizen,” she said in a statement.
Carroll said the developments illustrated “that Trump will do everything possible, including using the full powers of the federal government,” to try to stop the case.
And in a tweet addressed to Trump, Carroll wrote: “Sir, I and my attorney Robbie Kaplan, are ready! So is every woman who has ever been silenced! So is every American citizen who has been trampled by Bill Barr and the DOJ! BRING IT!”
The filing complicates, at least for the moment, Carroll's efforts to get a DNA sample from the president as potential evidence and to have him answer questions under oath.
Justice Department lawyers argue that Trump was "acting within the scope of his office” when he denied Carroll's allegations, made last year, that he raped her in a New York luxury department store in the mid-1990s. She says his comments — including that she was “totally lying” to sell a memoir — besmirched her character and harmed her career.
“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,” the Justice attorneys wrote.
It will be up to a federal judge to decide whether to move the case to federal court from state court and to allow the U.S. to become the defendant.
Carroll is trying to get a DNA sample from Trump to see whether it matches as-yet-unidentified male genetic material found on a dress that she says she was wearing during the alleged attack and didn't don again until a photo shoot last year.
Her suit seeks damages and a retraction of Trump’s statements.
The Associated Press does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly.
Associated Press Writer Colleen Long contributed to this report from Washington.