The White House liaison to the Department of Justice (DoJ), Heidi Stirrup, sought out derogatory information late last year from a senior justice department official regarding a woman who alleges she was raped by Donald Trump, according to the person from whom Stirrup directly sought the information.
The revelation raises the prospect that allies of the US president were directly pressing the justice department to try to dig up potentially damaging information on a woman who had accused Trump of sexually attacking her.
E Jean Carroll, a journalist and advice columnist, sued Trump in November 2019, alleging he had defamed her when he denied her account of having been raped by him. Carroll alleges Trump sexually assaulted her in a dressing room in Bergdorf Goodman, a high-end Manhattan department store, in either late 1995 or early 1996.
Trump at the time responded to her allegations by claiming Carroll was “totally lying” and attempted to ridicule her by saying “she’s not my type”. Those and similar comments led Carroll to sue him.
Stirrup apparently believed the justice department had information that might aid the president’s legal defense in the suit. The attorney who Stirrup sought information from regarding Carroll said that Stirrup approached them not long after a judge had ruled the justice department could not take over Trump’s defense.
Stirrup asked if the department had uncovered any derogatory information about Carroll that they might share with her or the president’s private counsel. Stirrup also suggested that she could serve as a conduit between the department and individuals close to the president or his private legal team.
Stirrup also asked the official whether the justice department had any information that Carroll or anyone on her legal team had links with the Democratic party or partisan activists, who might have put her up to falsely accusing the president.
Earlier, Trump himself, without citing any evidence, suggested that his political opponents were behind the allegations: “If anyone has information that the Democratic party is working with Ms Carroll or New York Magazine [to whom Carroll first told her story], please notify us as soon as possible,” Trump said.
The official from whom Stirrup sought information admonished Stirrup, telling her that her request was inappropriate.
The official recalled “conveying to her in the strongest possible terms” that it was wrong in the first place to seek out such information, and instructed her not to do so in the future.
When it was learned Stirrup had later sought out non-public information from other justice department officials about other ongoing investigations, including around election fraud, and non-public information in regards to matters of interest to the White House, Stirrup was told she was unwelcome at the justice department and banned from the building.
On 3 December the Associated Press, citing three sources, reported Stirrup’s banning “after trying to pressure staffers to give up sensitive information about election fraud and other matters she could relay to the White House”. It has not been previously reported, however, that one of the issues that led to Stirrup’s banning was her seeking out information about the Carroll case.
It is unclear whether Stirrup was acting on her own or at the direction of the White House when it comes to the Carroll case.
But many see it as unlikely that Stirrup was making her inquiry entirely independently. Stirrup served as the liaison to the justice department during a period when the White House was removing its liaisons to virtually every major federal agency who they believed might be disloyal – while informing their replacements that they would no longer reporting to the agencies they were assigned to but rather directly to the White House.
A justice department spokesperson declined to comment, saying that they had been unsuccessful in uncovering more information.
The outcome of the Carroll defamation case may have immense political and legal consequences for Trump.
Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor, said that if the case comes to trial, Trump will have to “provide evidence and give testimony about the underlying rape allegation” and he could run the risk of perjury.
Not testifying truthfully during a civil case can have severe consequences for a president or other high-profile political figure. When former president Bill Clinton was sued for sexual harassment, and later admitted to giving misleading testimony in that case, he was impeached by the House of Representatives, acquitted by the US Senate after a trial, and voluntarily surrendered his license to practice law for five years.
Judge Lewis Kaplan, of the southern district of New York, who considered the justice department’s attempt to take over Trump’s legal counsel, noted in a 26 October ruling, that any finding that Trump defamed Carroll would probably be considered an implicit finding by a jury that Trump indeed raped Carroll.
“The question as to whether Mr Trump in fact raped Ms Carroll appears to be at the heart of her lawsuit. That is so because the truth or falsity of a defendant’s alleged defamatory statements can be dispositive of any defamation case,” Kaplan said.
In early September, the justice department, at the direction of the then attorney general, William Barr, sought to replace Trump’s private legal counsel with department attorneys, to defend him from Carroll’s lawsuit. Justice officials contended that while accusing Carroll of lying and further attacking her, Trump was acting in his official capacity as the president of the United States.
Kaplan ruled that the justice department could not take over Trump’s defense, concluding Trump’s alleged defamation of Carroll had nothing to do with his official duties as president or “the operation of government” or “within the scope of his employment”.
The justice department pledged to appeal Kaplan’s decision. But it is unlikely the justice department of Joe Biden will move forward with any such appeal.
Justice officials and outside legal observers say the department’s position that the president was acting in official capacity while allegedly defaming his alleged rape victim – from about 20 years earlier – is a position that would be unlikely to prevail with most judges.
Last week, while announcing that he was nominating the federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland to be his new attorney general, the president-elect said he would end Trump’s practice of “treating the attorney general as his personal lawyer and the department as his personal firm”.