The Biden administration recently did something that many of its fans would consider unthinkable: it backed Donald Trump in a court dispute involving a rape claim. Even the four Justice Department lawyers who filed a brief in Trump’s defense on Monday night appear to be acutely aware that they are engaging in unethical behavior.
“Then-President Trump’s response to Ms. Carroll’s serious allegations of sexual assault included statements that questioned her credibility in terms that were crude and disrespectful,” the brief begins. It labels Trump’s actions “unnecessary and inappropriate,” and at one point appears to concede that the allegations against Trump “cast doubt” on his “fitness for office.”
Despite this, the Biden Justice Department concludes that Carroll v. Trump, a case stemming from a rape claim against the former president, should be dismissed.
E. Jean Carroll is a senior advice writer and one of several credible women who have accused Trump of sexual assault. Trump disputes the charge, claiming he’s never met Carroll (although a photo from 1987 shows them together at a party) and that he couldn’t have raped her because she’s “not my type.”
Carroll’s complaint has nothing to do with the claimed rape. Rather, Carroll filed a defamation suit against Trump after the former president disputed the charge and then made a series of insulting statements about her, including that she had accused him of sexual assault to “sell a new book.”
The Department of Justice, for its part, does not take sides in the debate between Carroll and Trump over who is telling the truth. Rather, the Justice Department claims that Trump is immune from Carroll’s lawsuit under the federal Westfall Act because his rejection of Carroll’s allegations was made “within the scope of his office or employment” as president of the United States.
The Department of Justice’s decision to support Trump drew widespread criticism, including from within the White House. Despite the fact that the White House stated in a statement that it “was not consulted by DOJ on the decision to file this brief or its contents” and that it is “not going to comment on this ongoing litigation,” its statement also emphasized that “President Biden and his team have utterly different standards from their predecessors for what qualifies as acceptable statements.”
Despite how complicated this case is, it’s not unexpected that the Justice Department is arguing in Trump’s favor.
One of the Justice Department’s key roles is to defend the president’s institutional interests, even when those interests clash with some of the department’s other responsibilities, such as defending the legality of federal laws. The Justice Department is likewise hesitant to modify its mind in a pending case, lest it conveys the impression that the DOJ’s arguments are driven more by politics than by the law.
The Carroll case raises critical questions concerning when and how a private citizen can sue the president, as well as what kind of cases are permissible. Carroll has good legal arguments on her side, but if she wins, it might damage the presidency as an institution — and it may do so in the future when future presidents are sued for conduct considerably less heinous than Trump’s.
In other words, Carroll pushed the Justice Department to choose between its institutional responsibilities and the embarrassment of being linked to Trump’s behavior. It eventually came to the conclusion that its greater obligations must take precedence.