The Justice Department is asking to take over the defense of President Donald Trump in a defamation lawsuit filed by E. Jean Carroll, arguing the comments spurring the lawsuit came while Trump was in office.
Carroll, an Elle magazine writer, accused Trump of sexual assault that occurred in the 1990s, long before his presidency, but Trump called the allegations "totally false," saying he "never met this person in my life."
The denials are the focus of the lawsuit filed last year, and the DOJ argued in a court filing it should be permitted to take over the defense of the president.
The change of defense would delay the hearing of the lawsuit but will not kill it, because the federal government cannot be sued for defamation, CNN reported.
"President Trump was acting within the scope of his office as president of the United States at the time of the incidents out of which the plaintiff's defamation claim arose," the filing argued. "Indeed, when providing the challenged statements, the president was speaking to or responding to inquiries from the press, much as the elected officials in the cases cited above were speaking to the press or making other public statements at the time of their challenged actions.
"The Westfall Act accordingly requires the substitution of the United States as defendant in this action," the department added.
Trump and Attorney General William Barr have faced criticism for defending the president by using taxpayer dollars, and CNN legal analyst Elie Honig called the motion "a wild stretch by DOJ."
"I can't remotely conceive how DOJ can argue with a straight face that it is somehow within the official duties of the president to deny a claim that he committed sexual assault years before he took office," Honig said.
A White House official told CNN the move has legal precedent under the Federal Tort Claims Act
"The department's action adheres to the plain language and intent of the statute, which the courts have confirmed applies when elected officials, such as members of Congress, respond to press inquiries including with respect to personal matters," the official told CNN.
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