U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday sought to justify the Department of Justice’s controversial decision to defend former President Donald Trump in a private defamation suit brought against him by writer E. Jean Carroll, saying during a Senate hearing the department is acting in the best interest of the rule of law even as congressional Democrats decry the move.
Carroll sued Trump while he was president for comments he made after she accused him of sexual assault, and the Trump-era DOJ asked to represent Trump in the case, arguing his denial of Carroll’s allegations was part of his presidential duties.
The DOJ argued that while it didn’t support Trump’s “crude and disrespectful comments,” it still believed Trump’s response to Carroll’s allegations were answers to questions “posed to him in his capacity as President” and thus he can’t be held legally accountable.
The DOJ’s Trump defense has come under heavy criticism from Democrats, with Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee urging Garland to reverse the decision in a letter Tuesday that slams the department’s legal argument as “profoundly misguided.”
When asked about the case by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday, Garland said he “know[s] about the criticisms,” but the department’s job was “not to back any administration, previous or present,” and is rather to have an “adherence to the rule of law.”
That deference to the rule of law sometimes “means that we have to make a decision that we never would have made and that we strongly disagree with as a matter of policy,” Garland said.
“The essence of the rule of law [is that]…like cases be treated alike, that there not be one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans, that there not be one rule for friends and another for foes,” Garland said Wednesday. “It is not always easy to apply that rule.”
“As a policy matter, we are concerned that DOJ has taken the position that federal officials act within the scope of their employment—and, therefore, enjoy immunity from civil liability—whenever they defame someone, so long as there is some connection between the statement and their official responsibilities,” the House Democrats wrote to Garland on Tuesday, calling for a hearing with him on the department’s actions in the case. “President Trump’s disgusting comments about Ms. Carroll had nothing to do with his official responsibilities as President, and the whole world knows it. Survivors of sexual assault, among other victims, deserve better.”
Carroll sued Trump for defamation in 2019 after publicly accusing him of raping her in the 1990s. Trump vehemently denied the allegations, claiming Carroll was “totally lying” and “not my type,” which Carroll then alleged was defamatory and harmed her reputation. The Justice Department’s decision to defend Trump in the Carroll lawsuit is one of several controversial moves the DOJ has made in recent days regarding cases and policies from the Trump presidency. The DOJ defended a Trump-era Social Security Act provision for Puerto Rico residents before the U.S. Supreme Court, for instance, which Democrats including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) have criticized, and said it would “vigorously” defend a provision exempting religious schools from anti-LGBTQ discrimination laws. Some of the department’s recent moves have led President Joe Biden and the White House to distance themselves from the department and their decisions, emphasizing the department’s independence from the president. The Social Security Act measure, which withholds Supplemental Security Income from Puerto Rico residents, is “inconsistent with my Administration’s policies and values,” Biden said in a statement, while the White House made clear in a statement Monday that it was “not consulted” on the Justice Department’s filing in the Carroll case.
Legal experts are divided on the DOJ’s handling of the Carroll case, which could be a death knell for the lawsuit should the court agree Trump was acting within his presidential duties and thus should be shielded from legal liability. “DOJ had a choice to make here, and it made the wrong one,” former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance wrote in an op-ed for MSNBC about the case, while national security lawyer Bradley Moss told Reuters the department made its decision “the way it is supposed to be done: based on the law and merit, and not based on personal grievances.” “Everyone is upset about the facts of this case, which is understandable, but Garland has to think about the precedent he is setting for everyone,” former federal prosecutor and George Washington University Law School professor Randall Eliason told Reuters, arguing the Justice Department was acting to protect the office of the presidency rather than Trump.