Not As Surprising As You May Think: Garland DOJ Says That Trump Denying Raping E. Jean Carroll Was Official Presidential Business

from the the-doj-is-gonna-doj dept

Late last year, we covered the story of the DOJ stepping in to take over a defamation case for President Trump. As we noted at the time, the defamation case itself was pretty weak, though it's similar to a series of other defamation cases we've seen in recent times. E. Jean Carroll claimed that Donald Trump had sexually assaulted her many years ago. Trump later denied the claim, saying that it was "totally false" and saying (incorrectly, as it turns out) that he "never met this person in my life." Carroll then sued for defamation based on the denials. As noted, this kind of defamation case has popped up a few times, including a high profile one against Bill Cosby by one of his accusers as well.

What was perhaps somewhat different about the Carroll case, was that it was against the sitting president, and under the Westfall Act, if the Attorney General "certifies" that an action taken by federal employees that leads to a lawsuit against them was "within the scope of his office or employment," then the DOJ gets to insert itself into the case instead of the initial defendant (and, in a defamation case, then the case would be automatically dismissed, as you can't defame "the United States.")

So, the big question in this situation is whether or not Donald Trump denying sexually assaulting (or even meeting Carroll) was done as part of his official duties as president. I think it's a huge stretch to argue that it does -- and last fall, a judge agreed with me, denying the DOJ's attempt. The judge, Lewis Kaplan, noted that if Trump were talking about policy issues, it would be different, but denying a sexual assault from long before he was president doesn't appear to be official government business. I recognize that some people have argued otherwise, noting that since the accusations came up while he was president, and could potentially impact his job as president, commenting on the claims magically becomes the duty of the president, but that seems incredibly weak, and would effectively make the president immune from defamation claims in most instances.

Judge Kaplan went even further, though, in saying that he didn't think the president is even covered by the Westfall Act. This was surprising, but the argument was pretty compelling, with the key points being:

The president is a constitutional officer. He occupies the highest office in our nation, which is created by Article II of the Constitution. But that is not what Section 2671 requires. It speaks only of “officers . . . of any federal agency,” not officers of the United States within the meaning of the Constitution....


Because the president is at the apex of the executive branch, many think of him, in a colloquial sense, as the “head” of many federal departments, agencies, and organizations. At the very least, one might imagine that he leads some agency at the core of the executive branch. The government has not attempted to identify any such agency in its papers, but the two most obvious candidates are the Executive Office of the President (“EOP”) and the president’s cabinet. But neither entity fits the bill. The head of the EOP, which is a network of agencies, is the president’s chief of staff. And even if one were to call the cabinet an “executive department” or “independent establishment” – a dubious contention – the president himself is not a member of the cabinet, although the vice president is.

After Biden won the election, many assumed that the new DOJ, under Merrick Garland, would let the matter drop. After all, would a Biden administration really want to be in court trying to kill a defamation case against Donald Trump?

But, of course, that ignores how the DOJ functions, and the importance the DOJ puts on making sure it retains this power in other, future cases. So, while it surprised many, it shouldn't be at all surprising that the DOJ is appealing the decision.

The thing that seems most important to the DOJ is whether or not the Westfall Act applies to the president. For fairly obvious reasons, any presidential administration probably wants that to remain in place:

The district court held that the President is not an “employee of the government” for purposes of the FTCA and, hence, for the Westfall Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2679(b)(1). If that were correct, no action taken by the President could give rise to tort liability on the part of the United States. And the United States could never be substituted as the defendant in a tort action against a President in his or her personal capacity, even when the conduct at issue was incontrovertibly taken within the scope of employment.

Basically, the DOJ says that even if the Court technically read the law properly, no one else has ever read the law that way.

To our knowledge, the United States has never disclaimed liability for torts committed by an executive branch employee on the ground that the employee was not employed by one of the fifteen cabinet level departments identified in 28 U.S.C. § 451. To the contrary, all three branches of government have long construed the statute broadly.

And then it argues that the district court also should have allowed the DOJ to take over the case on the grounds that Trump denying the assault was, in fact, official business. The DOJ brief notes that it was discussing "reprehensible conduct," but that it could still be done within the scope of the President's duties.

Applying these established principles to this case, the statements by then- President Trump fell within the scope of his employment. The district court’s contrary conclusion was premised on an assumption that the statements were not within the scope because “President Trump’s views on [Ms. Carroll’s] sexual assault allegation” were not pertinent to his employment since “they reveal nothing about the operation of government” (SPA53) and “[n]either the media reports nor the underlying allegations have any relationship to his official duties” (SPA58). That premise was mistaken.

When members of the White House media asked then-President Trump to respond to Ms. Carroll’s serious allegations of wrongdoing, their questions were posed to him in his capacity as President. Likewise, when Mr. Trump responded to those questions with denials of wrongdoing made through the White House press office or in statements to reporters in the Oval Office and on the White House lawn, he acted within the scope of his office. Elected public officials can—and often must—address allegations regarding personal wrongdoing that inspire doubt about their suitability for office. Such wrongdoing can include not only the serious charges of criminal behavior leveled here, but a range of activities including fraud and malfeasance. Officials do not step outside the bounds of their office simply because they are addressing questions regarding allegations about their personal lives. Thus, in Ballenger, the D.C. Circuit concluded that a congressman acted within the scope of employment when he allegedly engaged in defamation during an interview to explain the reasons for his separation from his wife. 444 F.3d at 662. The district court’s contrary reasoning in this case fails to appreciate the responsibility that elected officials owe the public to respond to serious allegations that cast doubt on their fitness for office.

Once again, this is the DOJ and the administration doing what the DOJ and any administration is likely to do: protecting their own powers. It shouldn't be surprising, even if it feels weird that the Biden DOJ would continue down this path. It's likely going to be true in a number of other cases started by the Trump DOJ that the Biden DOJ might not have initiated, but doesn't want to hinder future powers.

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Filed Under: defamation, doj, donald trump, e. jean carroll, joe biden, merrick garland, westfall act, william barr

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Jun 2021 @ 4:50pm

    Re: Judge Lewis Kaplan?

    Just want to point out that Judge Kaplan is also the same judge that finally benchslapped Liebowicz. He also refused to compel a witness (found through torture) in Tanzania to come testify against Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani in 2010 and slapped down the government in the KPMG case (2008) for going after the company attempting to defend their employees.

    Even if the Donziger case is as bad as it sounds from a quick reading, this judge has in the past done some very laudable things - which doesn't make him a saint, it just makes him human.

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