In defending himself against the many legal actions he is facing, President Trump has long made a habit of altering his legal persona to suit his needs. Sometimes, when sued as the president, he fought the complaints in his capacity as an ordinary citizen; at other times, sued as an individual, he tried to fight in his professional capacity as president.
On Monday, lawyers for the writer E. Jean Carroll accused Mr. Trump of once again using this shape-shifting tactic when he had the Department of Justice abruptly step in and replace his private lawyers in her defamation lawsuit against him. Ms. Carroll has accused Mr. Trump of raping her in a Manhattan department store in the 1990s and then falsely denying it in public statements.
In a highly unusual legal maneuver, Mr. Trump’s attorney general, William P. Barr, argued last month that when the president denied Ms. Carroll’s allegations, he was acting in his official role as the leader of the government.
Given that, he said, the Justice Department should be allowed to substitute the government for Mr. Trump as the defendant in the case — a move that, under the law, would shield Mr. Trump from being sued for defamation. Mr. Barr later said that the Justice Department’s action came at the request of the White House.
In their newly filed court papers, Ms. Carroll’s lawyers asked a judge to block the move, arguing that while the law in question, the Federal Tort Claims Act, generally applies to lower-level government employees, it did not apply to Mr. Trump — or to any other president. They also said that Mr. Trump, in any case, was not acting in his official role when he denied Ms. Carroll’s claims.
“There is not a single person in the United States — not the president and not anyone else — whose job description includes slandering women they sexually assaulted,” the lawyers said.
The dueling views of Ms. Carroll’s suit came less than a month before the election and at a time when Mr. Trump is trailing in the polls. If a federal judge allows the Justice Department to put the federal government in Mr. Trump’s place as the defendant in the case, Ms. Carroll’s complaint would effectively be dismissed.
The lawsuit was filed last November in a state court in Manhattan and was headed toward a climactic moment over the summer, after a judge rejected the last of Mr. Trump’s efforts to postpone it.
The judge’s ruling meant that the president could no longer delay a potentially devastating disclosure: providing a sample of his DNA to determine whether it matched material on a dress Ms. Carroll claims she had on at the time of the incident.
But in early September, on Mr. Trump’s deadline to appeal the judge’s ruling, the Justice Department suddenly intervened in the case, seeking to remove Mr. Trump as the defendant and move the suit out of state court to Federal District Court in Manhattan. A federal judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, will now decide whether the removal was appropriate and if the Federal Tort Claims Act should apply to Mr. Trump.
More than a dozen women have accused Mr. Trump of sexual misconduct that they say occurred before he was elected president. He has denied the allegations.
Ms. Carroll, a longtime advice columnist for Elle magazine, disclosed her own claims in a book last year and in excerpts published in New York magazine. In her account, she accused Mr. Trump of attacking her in a dressing room in the luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman in the mid-1990s. Mr. Trump had stopped her and said, “Hey, you’re that advice lady!” she said.
She claimed that Mr. Trump then threw her against the wall, pulled down her tights, opened his pants and raped her. Responding to the book, Mr. Trump denied he had ever met Ms. Carroll and branded her a liar, saying, “She’s not my type.”
“She is trying to sell a new book,” he said in a statement, adding, “It should be sold in the fiction section.”
In her lawsuit, Ms. Carroll said that her readers looked to her for wisdom and integrity, and that Mr. Trump’s defamatory statements had caused her to lose their support and good will.
While Mr. Trump initially sought to delay the suit by claiming that sitting presidents were immune to civil suits in state court, a Manhattan state judge disagreed in August, saying that the case could continue.
In her decision, the judge, Verna L. Saunders, cited a ruling in July by the U.S. Supreme Court, which rejected Mr. Trump’s claim that as president he had immunity from criminal investigation. That case arose from a subpoena issued by the Manhattan district attorney for his tax returns.
Mr. Barr, in public comments the day after his department intervened in Ms. Carroll’s case, defended the move, saying it was routine to substitute the government as the defendant in suits against federal officials.
“The law is clear,” Mr. Barr told reporters. “It is done frequently. And the little tempest that’s going on is largely because of the bizarre political environment in which we live.”
But Ms. Carroll’s lawyers, Roberta A. Kaplan and Joshua Matz, in their new submission, described the Justice Department’s intervention in the case as “another stratagem” for Mr. Trump “to avoid accountability.”
“It does not appear that the White House directed the Justice Department to intercede in response to any new facts in this case,” the lawyers wrote. Instead, they added, “the Justice Department intervened to shield Trump from legal accountability only after his state court stall tactics, procedural gambits, and assertions of immunity were all rejected.”
Ms. Carroll’s lawyers noted that Mr. Trump has often claimed that aspects of his behavior in office — the tweets he sends and the business deals he profits from — were private matters, in sharp contrast to his claims that his statements about Ms. Carroll were within the scope of his office.
“Only in a world gone mad,” they wrote, “could it somehow be presidential, not personal, for Trump to slander a woman who he sexually assaulted.”