NEW YORK (AP) — Lawyers for former President Donald Trump appeared before a federal appeals court Friday to argue that the U.S. government should take his place as the defendant in a defamation lawsuit filed by a writer who accused him of rape.
The Republican’s attorneys told the judges he isn’t trying to dodge personal liability in the lawsuit by the columnist E. Jean Carroll. He just wants to keep future presidents from being burdened by legal claims, they said.
“This is not political. This is not about being a Democrat or a Republican. It is solely to protect the presidency as an institution,” attorney Alina Habba said.
Carroll sued Trump in 2019, saying he slandered her by denying her allegation that he raped her in a New York City department store in the 1990s. Trump said she was “totally lying” and was “not my type,” among other remarks.
In the final months of the Republican’s presidency, the Justice Department sought to replace him as defendant in the case, saying he was acting within the scope of his office in responding to Carroll’s allegations. The Justice Department has maintained its position during Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration.
Federal law makes it difficult to sue U.S. government employees individually for actions related to their jobs.
If the government prevails in taking Trump’s place, the change could lead to the dismissal of the case. Federal courts historically haven’t permitted defamation claims against federal employees for actions taken in their official capacity.
Justice Department lawyer Mark Freeman told the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals of Friday he wasn’t out to “defend or justify” Trump’s comments, calling them “crude and offensive.”
“I’m here because any president facing a public accusation of this kind, with the media very interested, would feel obliged to answer questions from the public, answer questions from the media,” Freeman said.
“When somebody says he did a heinous crime 20 years ago, he needs to address it,” Habba added, saying that Carroll’s claims essentially assailed Trump’s fitness for office. Carroll’s lawyers, however, argue that Trump’s response went beyond any job obligation.
“A White House job is not a promise of an unlimited prerogative to brutalize someone who was a victim of a prior attack,” attorney Joshua Matz said.
It’s not clear how soon the appeals court will decide.
The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they choose to tell their stories publicly, as Carroll has done.