Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday defended the Justice Department against rising criticism among Democrats and sexual-survivor groups over its decision to back former President Trump in a defamation lawsuit arising from a rape allegation by former writer E. Jean Carroll.
Mr. Garland said the Justice Department‘s decision was based on the “rule of law,” even if top officials didn’t agree with it.
“The job of the Justice Department in making decisions of law is not to back any administration previous or present,” he said during testimony before the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Our job is to represent the American people.
“Sometimes it means that we have to make a decision about the law that we would never have made and we strongly disagree with as a matter of policy,” Mr. Garland continued. “In every case, the job of the Justice Department is to make the best judgment it can as to what the rule of law requires.”
Mr. Garland assured Democrats that his Justice Department has diverged from the previous administration on several top policy issues.
“Matters of policy, of course, are completely different and that explains why we reversed the policies of the previous administration many times over the past three months and we’ve initiated our own policies that are distinctly different from the previous administration,” he said.
Mr. Garland’s comments come a day after Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee and sexual-assault survivor groups slammed the department’s decision to defend Mr. Trump.
The Justice Department on Monday filed a legal brief backing Mr. Trump‘s argument that he is entitled to government lawyers in the case because his comments about Ms. Carroll were made in his capacity as president.
The department’s defense could block Ms. Carroll‘s defamation lawsuit from going forward because federal law bars lawsuits against federal officials based on their actions.
Ms. Carroll in 2019 accused Mr. Trump of sexually assaulting her in a New York City clothing store dressing room in the mid-1990s. She filed the lawsuit in November 2019 after Mr. Trump responded to her allegations by saying, “she‘s not my type.”
In a letter to Mr. Garland, Democrats called the Justice Department‘s decision “profoundly misguided” and urged him to reconsider.
“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,” the Democrats wrote.
The Democrats, led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat, called on Mr. Garland to explain its rationale for defending Mr. Trump.
A Justice Department spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Also late Tuesday, a coalition of anti-sexual-assault groups, including the National Alliance to End Sexual Violence, Time’s Up and the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, called on the Justice Department to reverse its decision.
“At the heart of E. Jean Carroll‘s case against Donald Trump is the unassailable right for survivors to access accountability processes that lead to justice. Responding to an allegation that he raped Carroll long before he became president, Trump, in his personal capacity, made harmful statements about her. Protecting his remarks under the guise of ‘official duties as a government employee is the opposite of justice and sets an unacceptable precedent that would exempt any federal official from accountability for previous acts of violence and/or harassment,” the groups said in a joint statement.
“This DOJ decision is the kind of action that silences survivors and allows sexual violence to persist in the halls of power and throughout our society, and we urge the DOJ to reverse its position,” the statement continued.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, a Clinton appointee, last year denied the Justice Department‘s bid to dismiss the lawsuit, which the Trump administration appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.
At that time, President Biden, then on the campaign trail, blasted the Justice Department for defending Mr. Trump. On Tuesday, the Biden administration tried to distance itself from the department’s continued defense of the former president.
“The president strongly believes in the independence of the Department of Justice,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “The White House was not consulted by the Department of Justice on the decision to file this brief or its contents.”
Ms. Carroll, in a statement, expressed outrage over the department‘s actions.
“As women across the country are standing up and holding men accountable for assault — the DOJ is trying to stop me from having that same right,” she said. “I am angry! I am offended! I and my attorneys Robbie Kaplan and Joshua Matz are confident that Judge Kaplan’s decision will be affirmed by the 2nd Circuit.”