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In Unusual Move, DOJ To Defend Trump In E. Jean Carroll's Defamation Suit


The Justice Department is supposed to act as an independent law enforcement agency, but it's intervening on President Trump's behalf in a defamation lawsuit brought against him by the writer E. Jean Carroll. Carroll says the president sexually assaulted her years ago. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas is following this one. Hey, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So there's some history here that's necessary to remember in order to get this. Why is E. Jean Carroll suing the president?

LUCAS: Well, last year, she accused the president of sexually assaulting her in the mid-1990s in a dressing room of an upscale department store in New York City. The president denied the allegations, said he doesn't know her, and he accused Carroll of lying in order to sell books. After that, Carroll filed a lawsuit in state court in New York suing the president for defamation.

KING: And so why is the Justice Department getting involved?

LUCAS: Well, it's stepping in here on Trump's behalf. It papered - it filed papers in federal court last night in Manhattan. And in those papers, department attorneys say that the DOJ has come to the conclusion that Trump was acting as president, that he was acting within the scope of his office, when he denied Carroll's sexual assault allegations. And because of that, the department is seeking to make the United States government the defendant in this case instead of President Trump.

One legal step in that is that the department has moved the case from state court to federal court. Now, if the department succeeds and a federal judge grants its request here, legal experts say that it would likely spell the end of this case because the federal government can't be sued for defamation.

KING: Have E. Jean Carroll or her lawyers said anything?

LUCAS: They have responded on Twitter. Carroll actually addressed Trump directly, saying in a tweet that she's ready, and so is every woman who's ever been silenced. She also put out a statement from her attorney, Roberta Kaplan, who described the Justice Department's move as offensive. She said that the DOJ's argument that Trump was acting in his official capacity when denying these sexual assault allegations that predate his time in office - she said that was shocking. She also noted that a state supreme court judge had recently ruled that Carroll's lawsuit could proceed and that Trump was on the verge of being required to produce documents, to produce a DNA sample and to sit for a deposition in this case.

Like Carroll, Kaplan accuses Trump here of using the power of the U.S. government, she says, to try to evade responsibility for private misconduct.

KING: And so, you know, the notable thing here is that this is not the first time the Justice Department has appeared to act in a way that benefits President Trump, right?

LUCAS: Certainly, in the view of critics, the president and Attorney General William Barr have done a string of things that have benefited either Trump directly or his friends. What they would point to would be Barr's intervention in the case against Roger Stone to recommend a lighter sentence, overruling prosecutors who handled that case. Barr also moved to dismiss the case against the president's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, who, of course, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador back in 2016. There are a number of other things.

But as for the Carroll lawsuit here, a federal judge is going to have to rule on whether Trump was, indeed, acting within the scope of his office to see whether this can take place. But clearly, this is going to drag out the timeline for this whole Carroll lawsuit.

KING: OK. NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Thanks, Ryan.

LUCAS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.