Democratic lawmakers and legal experts accused Attorney General William Barr of unethically acting as President Donald Trump's "personal henchman" after the Justice Department on Tuesday moved to take over the president's defense team in a defamation case brought by journalist and author E. Jean Carroll, who has accused Trump of raping her in the 1990s.
"Today's actions demonstrate that Trump will do everything possible to block discovery from going forward in my case before the upcoming election to try to prevent a jury from ever deciding which one of us is lying."
—E. Jean Carroll
In a claim that baffled and alarmed observers, Justice Department lawyers said in new court filings that the federal government's intervention in the case is justified because Trump was acting in "within the scope" of his official capacity as president when he accused Carroll of lying about the rape.
Robbie Kaplan, Carroll's attorney, called the Justice Department's argument "shocking" in a statement late Tuesday, saying it "offends me as a lawyer, and offends me even more as a citizen."
As a result of a court decision last month, Kaplan noted, "Trump was soon going to be required to produce documents, provide a DNA sample, and sit for a deposition."
"Realizing that there was no valid basis to appeal that decision in New York courts, on the very day that he would have been required to appeal, Trump instead enlisted the U.S. Department of Justice to replace his private lawyers," Kaplan continued. "Trump's effort to wield the power of the U.S. government to evade responsibility for his private misconduct is without precedent, and shows even more starkly how far he is willing to go to prevent the truth from coming out."
Carroll echoed her lawyer in a statement of her own on Tuesday, saying, "Today's actions demonstrate that Trump will do everything possible, including using the full powers of the federal government, to block discovery from going forward in my case before the upcoming election to try to prevent a jury from ever deciding which one of us is lying."
TRUMP HURLS BILL BARR AT ME.
Just when @realDonaldTrump is required to produce documents and DNA in discovery, he sics the DOJ on us.
THIS IS UNPRECEDENTED!!
— E. Jean Carroll (@ejeancarroll) September 8, 2020
The Justice Department cited the Federal Tort Claims Act in its push to replace Trump's private defense team with government lawyers and move the defamation lawsuit, filed last November, from state to federal court.
"Though the law gives employees of the federal government immunity from most defamation lawsuits," the New York Times reported, "legal experts said it has rarely, if ever, been used before to protect a president, especially for actions taken before he entered office."
Heidi Li Feldman, professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center, wrote in a series of tweets late Tuesday that "by putting the DOJ to work defending him over conduct that has nothing to do with his official capacity, Trump has taken another giant step toward full-blown authoritarianism."
"Nothing in the official capacity of the presidency required Donald Trump to slur E. Jean Carroll. He may have thereby defamed her," Feldman added. "It is his personal responsibility to defend the suit, not the work of the U.S. government."
By converting the DoJ to a private law firm serving his unofficial legal interests, Trump again shows that he has no understanding of the office of the president in our constitutional democracy. 3/
— Heidi Li Feldman (@HeidiLiFeldman) September 9, 2020
Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called the Justice Department's intervention "outrageous and outright unacceptable."
"The Justice Department should serve the people, not a president," said Jayapal. "Yet Bill Barr continues to act not as the attorney general for the American people but as the personal henchman for Donald Trump."
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the date of a recent court ruling in E. Jean Carroll's case.