Last month, a federal jury found Trump liable for sexual assault and defamation in a trial over another lawsuit brought by Carroll, who says that Trump attacked her in the dressing room of a luxury department store. Trump is appealing that verdict.
The defamation claim in Caroll’s first trial involved a comment that Trump made in 2022, in which he called Carroll’s allegation a “hoax.” Carroll’s other lawsuit — the case in which Kaplan ruled Thursday — centers on comments Trump made in 2019, while he occupied the White House.
At the time, Trump called Carroll’s claim “a totally false accusation.” He also said in an interview with The Hill newspaper: “I’ll say it with great respect: Number one, she’s not my type. Number two, it never happened. It never happened, OK?”
Trump had pressed Kaplan to find that his response to Carroll’s allegations in 2019 were connected to his official presidential responsibilities because it related to his ability to govern. Typically, presidents are immune from any lawsuits related to their official conduct, and courts have interpreted that immunity broadly, even to actions they say are on the “outer perimeter” of a president’s duties.
But Trump crossed the line with his attacks on Carroll, Kaplan ruled. A trial is scheduled for Jan. 15.
An attorney for Carroll, Roberta Kaplan (who is not related to the judge), said Thursday: “Trump chose to waive presidential immunity and now he must live with the results of that decision. Today’s decision removes one more impediment to the January 15 trial on E Jean’s defamation damages in this case.”
An attorney for Trump, Alina Habba, said: “We disagree with the court’s decision and will be taking the appropriate steps to preserve all viable defenses.”
It’s not the first time a federal judge has ruled that Trump’s commentary as president fell outside the boundaries of his immunity from suit.
In February 2021, in a 112-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta concluded that Trump’s speech to supporters on Jan. 6, 2021, was similarly disconnected from his presidential responsibilities. Kaplan approvingly cited Mehta’s reasoning, particularly his determination that the “context” of a president’s words determines whether they pertain to his official duties.
In some ways, Kaplan’s analysis of Trump’s immunity was beside the point. He also ruled that Trump raised the immunity defense far too late to be considered — nearly three years after Carroll first filed suit. Trump contended in recent filings that he wasn’t required to raise the defense because presidential immunity should automatically cover his actions. But Kaplan sharply rejected that notion, noting that presidents and others with legal immunities are often required to raise them affirmatively in order for courts to consider them.
“Such a requirement would contradict the results in many of the other civil lawsuits filed against Mr. Trump for actions during his presidency, in at least one of which … Mr. Trump agreed with the plaintiff that absolute presidential immunity was not a ‘threshold issue that must be decided before reaching the merits,’” Kaplan noted.
Besides, Kaplan said, Carroll has been litigating for years, and applying presidential immunity now would delay her pursuit of justice.
“She now is 79 years old and, as just mentioned, has been litigating this case for more than three and a half years,” Kaplan wrote. “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.”
Trump has, for years, made a particularly sweeping argument in support of presidential immunity, contending that anytime a president speaks on matters of public concern he is immune from civil suit.