Court weighs immunity for Donald Trump in defamation case over rape claim

Trump claimed that his accuser, Jean Carroll, had concocted the rape claim to sell her book.

Former US President Donald Trump makes a fist while reacting to applause after speaking at the North Carolina GOP convention dinner in Greenville, North Carolina, US June 5, 2021.  (photo credit: JONATHAN DRAKE / REUTERS)
Former US President Donald Trump makes a fist while reacting to applause after speaking at the North Carolina GOP convention dinner in Greenville, North Carolina, US June 5, 2021.
(photo credit: JONATHAN DRAKE / REUTERS)

A Washington, D.C., appeals court on Tuesday considered whether Donald Trump should be immune from author E. Jean Carroll's defamation lawsuit stemming from the former US president's 2019 denial that he raped her.

An eight-judge panel is expected to decide in coming weeks whether Trump was acting as president when, in response to a reporter's question, he accused the former Elle magazine columnist of lying about the alleged mid-1990s encounter.

Trump's lawyer Alina Habba said the former president had an obligation to "deal fearlessly with the American people" when answering questions from reporters or even his constituents, entitling him to broad immunity covering Carroll's claim.

Joshua Matz, a lawyer for Carroll, countered that Trump has a "long history" of personal attacks, suggesting that his motivation in criticizing Carroll might be unrelated to doing his job as president.

The article that started it all

Carroll described the alleged encounter in a 2019 excerpt in New York magazine from her memoir, saying Trump raped her in a Bergdorf Goodman department store dressing room in Manhattan.

 US President Donald Trump rape accuser E. Jean Carroll arrives for her hearing at federal court (credit: REUTERS) US President Donald Trump rape accuser E. Jean Carroll arrives for her hearing at federal court (credit: REUTERS)

Trump later told a reporter that he did not know Carroll, that "she's not my type," and that she had concocted the rape claim to sell her book.

Last September, a federal appeals court in Manhattan asked the Washington court to weigh in on whether under District of Columbia law, Trump had spoken within the scope of his role as president, or in his personal capacity as Carroll argued.

If Carroll wins, she can continue pursuing the first of her two defamation cases against Trump in Manhattan federal court, with a trial scheduled for April 10.

A victory for Trump would likely end that lawsuit, and could provide broad immunity to presidents from defamation claims over statements they make while in office.

Regardless of the outcome, Carroll could still pursue her second lawsuit in Manhattan federal court, which says Trump defamed her last October -after he left the White House - by again denying the rape happened.

Carroll's case is one of many legal clouds over Trump as he runs for the White House in 2024.

The case is Trump et al v. Carroll, District of Columbia Court of Appeals, No. 22-SP-0745.