A group of progressive organizations told President Joe Biden this week that they believe that his Justice Department is continuing to support “anti-democratic” precedents set during Donald Trump’s administration, citing its continued defense of the former president in a defamation lawsuit brought by an author who says Trump sexually assaulted her.
“Survivors of sexual assault were hurt to learn that the Department of Justice chose to continue to defend Donald Trump in E. Jean Carroll’s defamation suit against the former president,” the groups wrote in a letter, which was addressed to Biden, as well as Attorney General Merrick Garland, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and White House Counsel Dana Remus.
“Unfortunately, this is but one example of many in which Merrick Garland’s Justice Department has maintained flawed legal positions of the Trump administration which contravene not only the administration’s goals, but basic norms of American democracy,” the groups added in the letter that was reviewed by The 19th.
Signatories were the open-government group Demand Progress Education Fund, Climate Hawks Vote, the justice-system focused People’s Parity Project, the Latinx advocacy group Presente.org, the human rights group Project Blueprint, the women’s advocacy organization UltraViolet and the Revolving Door Project, a good governance group.
“The Justice Department must immediately change course or allow for new leadership that will act in a manner consistent with the administration’s stated values,” they wrote to Biden in a letter that cited Garland by name multiple times.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) defends the laws, policies and officials of the federal government when they are challenged in court. New administrations will often step in and continue an departing administration’s legal defense in a case for both continuity and to avoid having the country’s top law enforcement agency seem overly politicized. Sometimes, that can put presidents in politically fraught positions. President Barack Obama’s Justice Department, for example, for several years continued representing Bush administration officials whom a terrorism suspect had accused of authorizing torture.
But when Garland’s Justice Department last month moved ahead in its defense of Trump in the defamation lawsuit brought by Carroll it was noteworthy because it involved the former president himself, and there were already questions about whether the department should be defending a claim made by an elected official that related to their life as a private citizen.
Carroll’s lawsuit follows a 2019 book in which she says Trump assaulted her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the 1990s. Trump said the allegation was not true, that they’d never met, that Carroll was “not my type,” and that she made the assault allegation in order to sell books. Carroll sued for defamation.
A White House spokesperson told CNN that the DOJ did not consult President Biden before filing the brief.
Last year, Attorney General William Barr made the unusual request to make the United States the defendant in Carroll’s defamation lawsuit instead of Trump, arguing his remarks were made as part of his official duties as president, and the government should therefore assume his defense. When the court agreed, it was seen as an additional hurdle for Carroll’s case to clear, since federal law protects employees of the federal government from defamation claims related to comments made during their official duties unless they are made with “actual malice.”
If the court concludes in Carroll’s case that Trump is protected by the statute, it could have implications for other pending legal matters, including several related to his remarks ahead of the January insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
The groups that sent the letter said they believed “what is driving Garland’s decision-making is an attempt to maintain the appearance that the DOJ is independent and remains consistent across administrations” but that it “makes no sense” given that Biden “made clear on the campaign trail, Trump treated the Department as his personal legal defense firm.”
The groups said under Garland’s leadership, the Justice Department also has attempted to shield former Trump officials such as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos from testifying; is continuing to seize land via eminent domain for Trump’s proposed border wall; and last month said it could and would defend a religious exemption to federal civil rights law that allows religious schools to accept federal money even if they discriminate against LGBTQ+ students.
“Attorney General Merrick Garland is treating the Trump presidency as if it were business as usual. In reality, it was deeply anti-democratic, consistently undermining accountability and the rule of law,” the groups wrote.