© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: E. Jean Carroll reacts as she exits the Manhattan Federal Court following the verdict in the civil rape accusation case against former U.S. President Donald Trump, in New York City, U.S., May 9, 2023. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/File Photo
By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Donald Trump suffered a legal defeat on Tuesday as the U.S. government reversed its earlier position that the former president could be immune from the writer E. Jean Carroll’s $10 million defamation lawsuit against him.
In a letter to Trump’s and Carroll’s lawyers, the U.S. Department of Justice said it no longer believed Trump acted within the scope of his office and employment as president in June 2019, when he denied having raped Carroll in a Manhattan department store dressing room in the mid-1990s.
The department late in Trump’s presidency had reached an opposite conclusion, which the Biden administration adopted to the surprise of some observers.
Its change of heart means it will not try to substitute itself as the defendant, effectively ending Carroll’s case because the government cannot be sued for defamation.
“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,” the department said.
Steven Cheung, a spokesperson of Trump, said the step showed that the Justice Department under President Joe Biden was “politically weaponizing the justice system” against Trump. He dismissed the department’s move as “a partisan sham.”
Carroll’s lawyer Roberta Kaplan said the change removes a possible impediment to the scheduled Jan. 15, 2024 trial in Manhattan federal court.
“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,” Kaplan said.
Carroll, 79, sued Trump, 77, after he responded to her rape claim by saying he had not known the former Elle magazine columnist, that she was not his “type,” and that she lied to boost sales of her memoir.
She sued a second time after a similar Oct. 2022 denial, leading on May 9 to a $5 million jury verdict against Trump for defaming and sexually abusing – but not raping – Carroll. Trump is appealing that verdict.
Earlier on Tuesday, Carroll asked a judge in a filing to dismiss Trump’s countersuit that she defamed him by repeating her claim that he raped her.
Her lawyers called the countersuit Trump’s latest effort to “spin” his trial loss by claiming she caused “significant harm” to his reputation and an “inordinate amount of damages” by implying after the verdict that the assault was also a rape.
They also said Trump sprung his counterclaim too late, to further delay “this otherwise trial-ready, much-delayed case.”
Trump, who is again seeking the presidency, sued Carroll on June 27, objecting to a CNN interview following the verdict where she said “oh yes he did, oh yes he did” when asked about the jury finding that he did not commit rape.
In their filing, Carroll’s lawyers said she did not say “oh yes he did” with actual malice, which would mean she knew or had reckless disregard for whether the statement was false.
They also said the statement was “substantially true,” and therefore not defamatory, and simply reflected what was on Carroll’s mind as the verdict was read.
The case is Carroll v Trump, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 20-07311.