Barr backs U.S. move to defend Trump against rape accuser's defamation lawsuit

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Wednesday defended his office’s intervention in a defamation lawsuit by a woman who accused President Donald Trump of raping her, when it moved the case to federal court and sought to install its own lawyers to replace Trump’s private legal team.

In a court filing on Tuesday, the Department of Justice said Trump acted “within the scope of his office as president” when he denied raping former Elle magazine advice columnist E. Jean Carroll in a Bergdorf Goodman department store in Manhattan in the mid-1990s, and denied knowing her.

The department said it had authority under the federal Westfall Act to move the case from a New York state court and substitute the United States as the sole defendant, potentially putting taxpayers on the hook for defense costs.

Speaking at an unrelated news conference, Barr said case law made it clear that elected officials who answer questions while in office even about personal matters are entitled to be defended by government lawyers.

“Any defamation claim is subject to U.S. law,” Barr said. “This was a normal application of the law. The law is clear. It is done frequently.”

U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in Manhattan was assigned to Carroll’s case, which began in state court in November 2019.

The filing came one month after a New York state judge rejected Trump’s bid to delay the case, putting Carroll’s lawyers in position to have Trump answer questions under oath, perhaps before the Nov. 3 election, and submit a DNA sample.

Slideshow ( 2 images )

Some legal experts said moving the case is a win for Trump because it effectively negates the last 10 months of litigation, regardless of whether Kaplan lets the government substitute its own lawyers and replace Trump as the defendant.

Carroll has said Trump lied about attacking her, and smeared her integrity by concocting other lies to explain why she would make up the rape accusation.

“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,” Roberta Kaplan, Carroll’s lawyer, said in a statement.

The Westfall Act immunizes federal employees from common-law tort claims, such as negligence, arising from conduct performed as part of their official duties.

Trump has in multiple cases claimed immunity from civil lawsuits in state courts.

In rejecting that claim in Carroll’s case, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Verna Saunders cited a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision not to block a subpoena for Trump’s tax returns by Manhattan’s district attorney.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York and Sarah N. Lynch in Washington, D.C.; Additional reporting by Alison Frankel; Editing by Dan Grebler