A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that President Trump can be personally sued for defamation in connection with his denial while in office of a decades-old rape allegation.
The judge, Lewis A. Kaplan of Federal District Court in Manhattan, rejected the Justice Department’s attempt to step into the case and defend the president, and his ruling means that, for the moment, a lawsuit by the writer E. Jean Carroll can move forward against Mr. Trump, in his capacity as a private citizen.
Ms. Carroll has accused Mr. Trump of raping her in a department store dressing room in the 1990s. Her lawsuit claims he harmed her reputation when he denied the attack last year and branded her a liar.
Last month, the Justice Department abruptly intervened on Mr. Trump’s behalf in the suit, which had been filed in state court in New York, citing a law designed to protect federal employees against litigation stemming from the performance of their duties.
Under that law, the Federal Tort Claims Act, the department sought to move Ms. Carroll’s suit to federal court and to substitute the United States for Mr. Trump as the defendant — a move that would have likely led to the dismissal of the charges.
While the Justice Department has used the law to shield members of Congress from being sued for defamation over things they have said, the department has rarely, if ever, used it to grant immunity to a president.
Judge Kaplan, however, ruled against the department’s maneuver, saying Mr. Trump was not acting in his official capacity when he denied the accusation. “His comments concerned an alleged sexual assault that took place several decades before he took office, and the allegations have no relationship to the official business of the United States,” the judge wrote.