Lawyers for Donald Trump appeared before a federal appeals court on Friday to argue that the US government should take his place as the defendant in a defamation lawsuit filed by writer E Jean Carroll, who has accused him of rape.
The former president’s attorneys told the judges he was not trying to dodge personal liability in the lawsuit by Carroll, who has spoken publicly about her allegations. He just wants to keep future presidents from being burdened by legal claims, they said.
“This is not political. This is not about being a Democrat or a Republican. It is solely to protect the presidency as an institution,” attorney Alina Habba said.
Carroll sued Republican Trump in 2019 while he was serving his single-term presidency, saying he slandered her by denying her allegation that he raped her in a New York department store in the 1990s. Trump said she was “totally lying” and was “not my type”, among other remarks.
In his final months in the White House, before Joe Biden was inaugurated as his successor in January 2021, after winning the election in November 2020, the justice department (DoJ) sought to replace Trump as defendant in the case, saying Trump was acting within the scope of his office in responding to Carroll’s allegations.
The justice department has maintained its position during Biden’s administration.
Federal law makes it difficult to sue US government employees individually for actions related to their jobs.
If the government prevails in taking Trump’s place, the change could lead to the dismissal of the case.
Federal courts historically have not permitted defamation claims against federal employees for actions taken in their official capacity, although the definition of official capacity is ambiguous in this situation.
The DoJ lawyer Mark Freeman told the second US circuit court of appeals on Friday he was not out to defend Trump’s “crude and offensive” comments.
“Any president facing a public accusation of this kind, with the media very interested, would feel obliged to answer questions from the public [and] the media,” Freeman said.
“When somebody says he did a heinous crime 20 years ago, he needs to address it,” Habba added, saying that Carroll’s claims essentially assailed Trump’s fitness for office.
Carroll’s lawyers argue that Trump’s response went beyond any job obligation.