The Biden administration has also encouraged the courts to let the federal government defend Trump.
Attorneys for former President Donald Trump told an appeals court on Friday that the U.S. government should replace him as the defendant in a defamation lawsuit brought by E. Carroll Jean, a writer who accused Trump of rape.
According to CNN, Trump’s lawyers say their client is not trying to avoid personal liability—rather, he does not wish for future presidents to be encumbered by legal claims.
“This is not political. This is not about being a Democrat or Republican,” attorney Alina Habba said. “It is solely to protect an institution.”
Carroll, recounts CNN, sued Trump in 2019, while he was still in office.
In her lawsuit, Carroll charged Trump with defamation, after the single-term president accused her of lying about a sexual assault Carroll claims took place in a New York City department store in the 1990s.
Trump has long refuted Carroll’s claims. In a public address, the president said that Carroll was “totally lying,” and that she was “not my type” to begin with.
Shortly before the Trump administration vacated the White House, the federal Department of Justice asked the courts to replace Trump as a defendant.
According to the Justice Department, Trump was acting in his official capacity as a U.S. President when he denied Carroll’s allegations. Consequently, the federal government believes that Trump should not—and cannot—be sued for his remarks.
Interestingly, the Biden administration has upheld Trump’s position.
The Guardian notes that, traditionally, the American judiciary does not allow defamation claims against government employees acting in an official capacity. However, the definition of “official” is ambiguous.
On Friday, Justice Department attorney Mark Freeman told the U.S. 2nd Court of Appeals that he is not trying to defend Trump’s “crude and offensive” comments.
However, Freeman did say that any sitting president—no matter the circumstance—may feel pressed to answer questions of public interest, even when they pertain to controversial and highly personal topics.
“Any president facing a public accusation of this kind—with the media very interested—would feel obliged to answer questions from the public, the media,” Freeman said.
Habba similarly said that Trump effectively had no choice in responding to Carroll’s claims, especially after he was confronted with them in a public venue.
“When somebody says he did a heinous crime 20 years ago, he needs to address it,” Habba said.
CNN suggests that the case is critical for Trump, who is facing an assortment of private lawsuits.
If the court rules in favor of Trump, it will be another major victory for the former president, coming just weeks after another sexual assault accuser, Summer Zervos, decided to drop her own defamation lawsuit against him.