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Barr’s ‘shocking’ request for DOJ to defend Trump in defamation lawsuit

The Justice Department has moved to intervene in a defamation lawsuit against President Trump. In 2019, columnist E. Jean Carroll accused Trump of raping her years ago, and later claimed his denunciations amounted to defamation. William Brangham talks to David Laufman, a former DOJ official under multiple administrations, about what he calls an "inappropriate" intervention by the attorney general.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Last night's move by the Department of Justice to intervene in a lawsuit against President Trump has critics of the administration crying foul.

    William Brangham begins our coverage of the unusual filing.

  • William Brangham:

    In Chicago today, Attorney General William Barr defended the Justice Department's latest move to shield the president from legal exposure.

  • William Barr:

    This was a normal application of the law. The law is clear. It is done frequently.

  • William Brangham:

    Last night, the DOJ asked to take over as President Trump's defense in a defamation lawsuit filed by a woman who accused the president of raping her many years ago.

    In 2019, advice columnist E. Jean Carroll alleged that, in the 1990s, then-businessman Donald Trump raped her in a New York City department store dressing room. The Justice Department's move would shift the venue from New York's Supreme Court to federal court and substitute in the U.S. government as the defendant, instead of Mr. Trump.

    That would mean the federal government, rather than the president, would be on the hook to pay any financial damages the president's accuser might be awarded.

    For his part, President Trump has repeatedly denied Carroll's allegations.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's a total false accusation, and I don't know anything about her.

  • William Brangham:

    But Carroll says the president's words harmed her reputation and career, and so she sued for defamation.

    Carroll's lawyer called last night's filing by the DOJ — quote — "shocking."

    Today, Attorney General Barr argued the law entitles elected officials to a federal defense when they make public comments, even if the comments concern their personal life.

    This isn't the first time the attorney general has inserted himself into a politically fraught investigation connected to the president. Barr overruled prosecutors and tried to reduce the prison sentence of Trump ally Roger Stone, who was convicted of lying to congressional investigators.

    President Trump later commuted Stone's sentence.

    And, this year, the DOJ also moved to dismiss its own case against former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

    For a closer look all of this, I'm joined by David Laufman. He held senior roles at the U.S. Justice Department during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He's now an attorney in private practice.

    David Laufman, very good to have you here.

    Could you just help us understand, how unprecedented is this move that we saw from Attorney General Barr last night?

  • David Laufman:

    I mean, I can't think of anything historically that is comparable to this, where the Department of Justice is coming to the rescue of a president in connection with his public comments about private behavior many years ago, an alleged sexual assault.

    In and of itself, it ought to shock the conscience of all Americans who care about the Department of Justice's essential role as an independent arbiter of the rule of law.

  • William Brangham:

    Help me understand this, because, as we just heard from Attorney General Barr, he says this happens all the time.

    He in that — in the press conference also said that other presidents, vice presidents have done this, that this is not unusual at all.

  • David Laufman:

    I mean, this is not a case of the likes of which he's probably referring where at issue is whether a president or executive branch official has truly acted within the scope of their official duties.

    The president — you know, comments about a rape assault allegation just don't squarely come within the scope of his official duties. It's shocking that the Department of Justice and the attorney general would say so. And I would be stunned if a district court found so.

  • William Brangham:

    Yes, this was one of the arguments that the Department of Justice was making, which was that, when the president said those things denying the assault allegations and the things he said about Mrs. Carroll, that he was acting in his role as president; thus, it's appropriate for the DOJ to make this move.

    Do you think that that assertion is false?

  • David Laufman:

    I don't think that that is a version of the president's protection from liability that will square with how the courts have historically addressed these issues.

  • William Brangham:

    So, are there other historical comparisons?

    I mean, I think back to, say, when Bill Clinton was in office, and he was going through the Paula Jones case. I don't — certainly don't remember the Department of Justice stepping in and saying, we will handle your defense, and we ought to take this on as the U.S. government.

  • David Laufman:

    It would never have entered Bill Clinton's mind. It would never have entered the attorney general's mind. He had private counsel to represent him throughout that debacle.

    And, look, I mean, this is the latest in a rogues' gallery of other examples where the Department of Justice, in the hands particularly of this attorney general, has been weaponized in furtherance of the president's personal and political ends, and not in its essential role as an independent arbiter for the rule of law.

  • William Brangham:

    You worked in the Department of Justice. You know a lot of the rank-and-file there.

    We know the president has had a very — complicated is probably the most generous way to put it — complicated relationship with the DOJ and the Justice Department.

    What are staff lawyers and attorneys and people within the DOJ feeling about this? Do they think this is appropriate? Do you hear from them? What are you hearing?

  • David Laufman:

    Well, I will just say that it's reasonable for the American people to believe that these types of events are jarring, jarring to the rank-and-file men and women of the Department of Justice, career attorneys, FBI agents, law enforcement agents across the country, who, day to day, put their nose to the grindstone to carry out the rule of law in an impartial fashion, without fear or favor and without the need to fear improper political influence.

    It doesn't make their jobs any easier. And if you think about trials and proceedings across the country that take place in courts across this country, when an assistant U.S. attorney stands up on behalf of the United States, when an FBI agent takes the witness stand, what are jurors to think now?

    What credibility can they attach to the government? Is it always going to be the same? Is that credibility and trust going to be eroded? That's among the greatest fears that I and other former Department of Justice officials have.

  • William Brangham:

    Can we go back to the Carroll case at hand here?

    What does it mean that the president — again, this is if the DOJ's movement is successful, and we don't know that yet. But the president no longer is the defendant. Now the U.S. government is the defendant. That means the DOJ lawyers will now be working on the president's defense? Is that — what happens if they're successful?

  • David Laufman:

    If they're successful, my understanding, as a matter of law, in essence, that will bring the case to an end, because the United States government can't be sued for defamation.

    So, it will have the de facto effect of bringing this case to an end, to protecting the president from the type of embarrassment and potentially the liability that he could incur if this case moves forward on its previous course.

  • William Brangham:

    We knew that the president had lost his appeal in New York state to delay this case, and that he was on the cusp perhaps of having to do a sworn interview about this case, perhaps even give a DNA sample to Ms. Carroll's lawyers.

    Do you think that that — the timing of this is suspect in that sense, that that's clearly why the attorney general has stepped forward to act now?

  • David Laufman:

    I can't speak to any motives or intentions that Ms. Carroll had with respect to the timing of this lawsuit.

    But that should have nothing to do with the appropriate use of the Department of Justice as an instrument of the president's personal, petty, you know, political or personal grievances. It's just completely inappropriate.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, David Laufman, who used to hold senior positions at the DOJ, thank you very much for your time and helping us wade through all of this.

  • David Laufman:

    Thank you for having me.

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