The White House asked the Justice Department to take over the defense of President Donald Trump in a defamation lawsuit filed by a woman who has accused Trump of sexual assault in the 1990s, Attorney General William Barr said Wednesday.
Because Trump addressed and denied the accusations by E. Jean Carroll while serving as president, Barr said, the federal government is allowed to step in.
The attorney general also said politics is to blame for the reaction to the Justice Department paying for Trump’s defense and possibly killing the lawsuit.
“This was a normal application of the law. The law is clear. It is done frequently. And the little tempest that’s going on is largely because of the bizarre political environment in which we live,” Barr said in a news conference in Chicago.
“Officials who are elected and answer press questions while they’re in office, even if those questions relate to their personal activity, and could bear upon their personal fitness, is in fact in the course of federal employment, and can be therefore certified under the Westfall Act,” Barr said.
Carroll, a veteran columnist for Elle Magazine, said Trump falsely called her a liar after she accused him of sexual assault.
“President Trump knows that I told the truth when I said that he had sexually assaulted me in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman. He also knows that he was lying when he said that he had never met me before and that I ‘wasn’t his type,'” Carroll said in a statement Tuesday.
Carroll’s lawyers have not yet responded in court to the motion to replace Trump’s private lawyers.
Barr said the White House followed the proper course of action to request the Justice Department’s intervention.
“The process involves the employing agency, which in the case of a president has been the White House, sending in a memorandum requesting certification,” Barr said. “That process was followed in this particular case.”
The White House did not confirm Barr’s statement, but in a statement said the Justice Department’s move “adheres to the plain language and intent of the Statute which the courts have confirmed applies when elected officials, such as members of Congress, respond to press inquiries including with respect to personal matters.”
CNN legal analyst and University of Texas law professor Steve Vladeck said Barr’s comments are misleading when it comes to the President.
“Yes, DOJ ‘frequently’ seeks to take over tort claims against federal employees,” Vladeck said. “But there’s no ‘frequent’ history of doing so when the defendant is the President — or of waiting as long as DOJ did here to invoke the statute.”
The lawsuit was filed in November, and a New York judge last month ruled that the lawsuit could proceed against Trump. Carroll is also seeking to require Trump provide a DNA sample to compare with male genetic material found on the black Donna Karan dress Carroll says she wore during the alleged encounter at Bergdorf’s.
A person familiar with Trump’s legal team said having the Justice Department step in into the case opens the door for additional legal defenses to the claims against Trump, including arguing that the federal government cannot be sued for defamation.
This story has been updated with additional comments from Barr.