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DOJ won't shield Trump from claims he defamed writer E. Jean Carroll

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia on June 30.
Matt Rourke
Former President Donald Trump speaks at a Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia on June 30.

The Justice Department said it will decline to shield former President Trump from a defamation claim by New York writer E. Jean Carroll, reversing course on one of its most controversial decisions during the early stretch of the Biden administration.

The department notified attorneys for Trump and Carroll of the move late Tuesday afternoon. In papers filed with a federal judge in New York, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton said DOJ determined that it "lacks adequate evidence to conclude" Trump was serving the federal government and acting within the scope of his employment when he denied he had sexually assaulted Carroll and made other derogatory remarks about her.

The change in course is a significant one. If the Justice Department had decided Trump were covered under a law called the Westfall Act, he would, in essence, have secured immunity from the civil claims. That's because federal workers are shielded from those kinds of lawsuits so long as the workers are acting within the bounds of their jobs.

Roberta Kaplan, a lawyer for Carroll, said she was grateful for the new position from the department.

"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," Kaplan said in an emailed statement. "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."

Lawyers for Trump had no immediate comment on the reversal.

The case has worked its way not only through the New York federal court system, but also the D.C. Court of Appeals. Last year, that D.C. court said the analysis under the Westfall Act required some "purpose" to serve the employer.

The Justice Department said it reviewed the court ruling, Trump's deposition, new allegations in Carroll's complaint and the jury verdict in a separate case Carroll won against Trump earlier this year. That jury took just a few hours to find Trump liable for battery and defamation, awarding Carroll millions of dollars in damages.

Among the factors DOJ mentioned in court papers Tuesday to explain its new position are that Trump made negative remarks about Carroll even after he left office, added fuel to the fire with new comments this year after the New York jury verdict and the alleged sexual assault "was obviously not job related."

"The evidence of Mr. Trump's state of mind, some of which has come to light only after the Department last made a certification decision, does not establish that he made the statements at issue with a 'more than insignificant' purpose to serve the United States Government," DOJ official Boynton wrote.

Carroll filed the defamation lawsuit three years ago. At that time, then-Attorney General Bill Barr sided with Trump and said Trump had been acting within the bounds of his office as president. But Judge Lewis Kaplan rejected that position — only to watch as the new Biden attorney general, Merrick Garland, also extended a legal shield to Trump.

The Biden Justice Department said Trump had drafted and made the negative remarks while he was in the White House, in response to questions from reporters. And DOJ pointed out that "the former President was responding to allegations that could have called into question his fitness to hold the office of the Presidency."

The change in course adds yet another legal burden for Trump, who is fighting criminal charges over accounting for alleged hush money payments in Manhattan and separate federal charges for alleged obstruction and willful retention of highly classified documents at his Florida resort.

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Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.
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