NEW YORK — Former President Donald Trump’s claims that absolute presidential immunity and free speech rights shield him from the defamation claims of a New York columnist were rejected Thursday by a federal judge.
The writer, E. Jean Carroll, can continue to press claims that Trump owes her at least $10 million in damages for comments he made before and after she won a $5 million sexual abuse and defamation verdict against him last month, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan said in a written opinion.
Trump tried to dismiss the lawsuit on grounds that he is entitled to absolute presidential immunity, his statements were not defamatory and that his statements were opinion protected by free speech rights.
Kaplan said Trump surrendered absolute presidential immunity as a defense by failing to assert it years ago when the lawsuit was filed. The lawsuit was delayed until recently as appeals courts considered legal issues surrounding it.
Trump countersued Carroll this week, claiming that she has libeled him by continuing to insist that he raped her even after a jury found otherwise.
After a jury returned its verdict last month in Manhattan federal court, Trump made comments on a CNN town hall that prompted Carroll to assert new defamation claims in a 2020 defamation lawsuit.
The jury award resulted from a sexual abuse and defamation lawsuit filed last November after New York state temporarily enacted a law allowing sexual assault victims to sue for damages resulting from attacks that occurred even decades earlier.
Trump’s claims in the CNN broadcast mirrored statements he made while president in 2019 when Carroll published a memoir in which she claimed Trump raped her in the dressing room of a luxury midtown Manhattan department store in spring 1996.
Within hours of excerpts from the book being published in a magazine, Trump denied a rape occurred or that he ever knew Carroll.
“Mr. Trump did not merely deny Ms. Carroll’s accusation of sexual assault,” Kaplan wrote. “Instead, he accused Ms. Carroll of lying about him sexually assaulting her in order to increase sales of her book, gain publicity, and/or carry out a political agenda.”
The judge said the main purpose of presidential immunity was to avoid diverting the president from public duties, but it was not a “get-out-of-damages-liability-free card that permits the president to say or do anything he or she desires even if that conduct is disconnected entirely from an official function.”
Kaplan said he took into consideration that Carroll is now 79 years old and has pursued claims against Trump for 3 1/2 years.
“There is no basis to risk prolonging the resolution of this litigation further by permitting Mr. Trump to raise his absolute immunity defense now at the eleventh hour when he could have done so years ago,” he said.
In rejecting claims that Carroll’s lawsuit was about protected speech, Kaplan explained how libel and slander are handled in the courts and why Trump’s statements could be construed to fit the legal definition for defamation, including that a jury had already found it so.
Trump’s lawyers did not immediately comment.
Attorney Robbie Kaplan, who represents Carroll and is unrelated to the judge, said in a statement that the judge’s ruling “confirms that once again, Donald Trump’s supposed defenses to E. Jean Carroll’s defamation claims don’t work.”
She added: “Today’s decision removes one more impediment to the January 15 trial on E Jean’s defamation damages in this case.”
The Associated Press typically does not name people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they come forward publicly, as Carroll has done.
Story by Larry Neumeister