NEW YORK — The Justice Department on Tuesday said former President Donald Trump should not be immune from a defamation lawsuit over comments he made about the writer E. Jean Carroll while he was president.
The new court filing — which reverses a legal position first adopted under Trump and then maintained under President Joe Biden — paves the way for the lawsuit to proceed to trial in January. It would be the second time Trump has faced Carroll in court in less than a year.
Carroll is suing Trump for denying her claim that he sexually assaulted her in the dressing room of a Manhattan department store in the mid-1990s. In 2019, while he occupied the White House, Trump said the incident “never happened” and said Carroll was “not my type.”
Earlier this year, a jury found Trump liable for sexual abuse for the alleged attack and for defamation arising out of additional comments he made after his presidency.
The lawsuit over the 2019 comments raised special legal issues because, typically, if a federal employee is sued over conduct connected to their official duties, the Justice Department can invoke a federal law and step into the role of the defendant, essentially immunizing the employee from personal liability. Had the Justice Department replaced Trump as the defendant in the second Carroll case, it would have ended the lawsuit, because the government itself cannot be sued for defamation.
The Justice Department initially tried to do just that. About a year after Carroll filed her lawsuit in 2019, Trump’s DOJ sought to substitute itself as the defendant. After he left office, DOJ officials continued to make the argument that Trump acted “within the scope of employment” and thus should not have to stand trial over his 2019 comments.
But in a letter filed Tuesday in federal court in Manhattan, the Justice Department said it has now determined that Trump was not “sufficiently actuated by a purpose to serve the United States Government” when he made the allegedly defamatory statements about Carroll.
“Although the statements themselves were made in a work context, the allegations that prompted the statements related to a purely personal incident: an alleged sexual assault that occurred decades prior to Mr. Trump’s Presidency,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian Boynton wrote.
He added: “That sexual assault was obviously not job-related.”
The Justice Department also noted the outcome of the jury trial earlier this year, saying the result “supports an inference that Mr. Trump was motivated by a ‘personal grievance’ stemming from events that occurred many years prior to Mr. Trump’s presidency.” Trump is appealing the verdict and the award of $5 million in damages.
On Tuesday, Roberta Kaplan, a lawyer for Carroll, said, “We are grateful that the Department of Justice has reconsidered its position. We have always believed that Donald Trump made his defamatory statements about our client in June 2019 out of personal animus, ill will, and spite, and not as President of the United States. Now that one of the last obstacles has been removed, we look forward to trial in E. Jean Carroll’s original case in January 2024.”
A lawyer for Trump, Alina Habba, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The Justice Department declined to comment beyond what it said in its letter.
The Justice Department’s decision is the latest setback in Trump’s efforts to scuttle the case. Last month, the judge overseeing the Carroll lawsuit — and who presided over the trial earlier this year — rejected the former president’s attempt to use “presidential immunity” to shield himself from civil litigation.