NEW YORK — In a sharp rebuke of President Donald Trump, a Manhattan federal court judge ruled Tuesday that the Department of Justice cannot intervene on Trump’s behalf in a defamation lawsuit brought by a magazine columnist who accused him of sexual assault in a department store in the 1990s.
The ruling by Judge Lewis Kaplan means E. Jean Carroll’s lawsuit against Trump — in his personal capacity as an ordinary citizen — can proceed. If Kaplan had allowed the Justice Department to represent Trump, the case would have likely been dismissed because the federal government cannot be sued for defamation.
“While the government’s position is not entirely without merit, it goes much too far. Accepting it would mean that a president is free to 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,” Kaplan wrote in a 61-page ruling.
After Carroll went public last year with her allegations of a rape inside a Bergdorf Goodman store, Trump called her a liar and declared she was “not my type.”
Kaplan bluntly dismissed the Justice Department’s contention that responding to the allegation was part of Trump’s official duties as president.
“While commenting on the operation of government is part of the regular business of the United States, commenting on sexual assault allegations unrelated to the operation of government is not,” Kaplan wrote.
Kaplan wrote that Trump could not, as requested, substitute himself for the Justice Department since he’s “not an ‘employee of the government.’” A president is selected by the Electoral College and the government does not have the power to fire him, except in extraordinary circumstances such as impeachment.
“Even if he were such an ‘employee,’ President Trump’s allegedly defamatory statements concerning Ms. Carroll would not have been within the scope of his employment,” Kaplan ruled.
Carroll’s attorney Roberta Kaplan hailed the ruling.
“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. Judge Kaplan’s words speak for themselves,” she said.
The Justice Department did not respond to an inquiry about the decision.
The Justice Department intervened in Carroll’s case, which was first filed in state court, in September. Roberta Kaplan has previously noted that the DOJ’s move came as she was seeking a DNA sample from Trump to determine if it matches unidentified male DNA on a dress Carroll wore during the alleged rape.
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