The Justice Department said on Monday that President Trump should not be sued personally for having denied a rape allegation because he made the statement while acting in his official capacity as president.
Lawyers for the government made the argument as they defended Attorney General William P. Barr’s decision to intervene in a defamation lawsuit filed in a New York court against President Trump by E. Jean Carroll, the writer.
Ms. Carroll has said that Mr. Trump raped her in a department store two decades ago and then falsely denied the attack, branding her a liar and harming her reputation.
But Justice Department lawyers say that even though the allegation concerns an incident that occurred decades before Mr. Trump became president, his denial was still an official act because he “addressed matters relating to his fitness for office as part of an official White House response to press inquiries.”
“Given the president’s position in our constitutional structure, his role in communicating with the public is especially significant,” the Justice Department wrote, adding, “The president’s statements fall within the scope of his employment for multiple reasons.”
On Sept. 8, the Justice Department took the highly unusual step of seeking to intervene on Mr. Trump’s behalf even though the lawsuit revolved around an event that allegedly occurred in the 1990s, long before Mr. Trump became president.
Using a law designed to protect federal employees from defamation suits when they perform their duties, Mr. Barr sought to transfer the lawsuit from state court to Federal District Court in Manhattan and to substitute the federal government for Mr. Trump as the defendant.
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That maneuver, if approved by a judge, would have the practical effect of dismissing Ms. Carroll’s lawsuit because government employees enjoy immunity from most defamation claims.
Earlier this month, Ms. Carroll’s lawyers attacked the effort in court papers, asking a federal judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, to reject it.
“There is not a single person in the United States — not the president and not anyone else — whose job description includes slandering women they sexually assaulted,” Ms. Carroll’s lawyers wrote.
In its filing on Monday, however, the Justice Department argued that Mr. Trump had not slandered Ms. Carroll but merely rebutted her allegations. That fell within the scope of his official role as president, the department said, because a claim of rape — even a false one — could have an impact on his job.
Ms. Carroll’s allegations “sought to call into question the president’s fitness for office and a response was necessary for the president to effectively govern,” the Justice Department said. “The president’s challenged statements were directly relevant to his role as president and leader of the executive branch.”
The controversy over the case even arose during a presidential campaign event last week, when the Democratic candidate, Joseph R. Biden Jr., alluded to it, among other examples, to accuse Mr. Trump of treating the Justice Department “as if it’s your own law firm.”
Justice Dept. Says Trump’s Denial of Rape Accusation Was an Official Act