The Justice Department said Tuesday that it will no long seek to make the U.S. government the defendants in a lawsuit filed against Donald Trump by a writer who says the former president raped her several decades ago.
The decision comes after three years in which the department, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, argued that Trump was acting within his presidential duties when he denied sexually assaulting columnist E. Jean Carroll. That determination made Trump, like other federal employees acting in their official capacity, totally immune from any liability.
On Tuesday, a Justice Department leader said in a court filing that two things had changed since they first moved to intervene in the case. First, a D.C. court clarified the law around what qualifies as public work, saying that it was determined in part by “the subjective state of mind of the employee,” that official responses to press questions didn’t always qualify and that the professional purpose can be so “insignificant” as to be irrelevant. Second, a jury in New York State Court found that Trump sexually abused and defamed Carroll, and he has been accused of defaming her again in response to that verdict. (The jury did not find that Trump raped her, and he has since accused Carroll of defamation for insisting he did. The judge responded a week later, saying the jury found Trump committed rape “as many people commonly understand the word” but New York law has a “narrow, technical” definition that requires penetration with a penis.
“The circumstantial evidence of Mr. Trump’s subjective intent in making the allegedly defamatory statements does not support a determination in this case that he was sufficiently motivated by a desire to serve the United States Government,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton wrote. Rather, he said, drawing on both the statements Carroll sued over and what Trump has said since, the “history supports an inference that Mr. Trump was motivated by a ‘personal grievance’ stemming from events that occurred many years prior to Mr. Trump’s presidency.”
Carroll went public with her allegation against Trump in 2019, saying he forced himself on her in a dressing room at Manhattan’s Bergdorf Goodman store in the 1990s. When he responded by telling reporters she was “totally lying” and “not my type,” she sued for defamation in federal court. After New York changed the statute of limitations for civil sexual abuse suits, she sued in state court as well, where in May she was awarded $5 million in damages. The federal trial is set to begin in January.
“We are grateful that the Department of Justice has reconsidered its position,” Carroll’s attorney, Roberta Kaplan, said in a statement. “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 of the United States. Now that one of the last obstacles has been removed, we look forward to trial.”
On social media Trump called the Justice Department’s decision, along with the $5 million jury verdict, “a horrible INJUSTICE.”
This article has been updated to include comment from the judge who oversaw Trump’s trial.