The Department of Justice moved to replace President Donald Trump‘s defense attorneys with government lawyers in author E. Jean Caroll‘s rape and defamation suit against the president.

The DOJ wrote in court papers that Trump was acting in his official capacity as president when he denied ever knowing Carroll, who accused him of raping her in Bergdorf Goodman, a Manhattan department store, in the 1990s.

While most federal officials are immune from many defamation suits, it is unclear if that defense has ever been used to defend actions taken before assuming office.

“The question is,” Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas law professor told the New York Times, “is it really within the scope of the law for government lawyers to defend someone accused of lying about a rape when he wasn’t even president yet?”

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Vladeck underscored the rarity of the Justice Department intervening in private matters of officials, telling the Times that the most similar case to this came in 2005, when a federal court ruled government lawyers could defend then-Rep. Cass Ballenger (R-North Carolina) in a defamation lawsuit brought by the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The DOJ justified their move under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives explains on their website as the federal government acting “as a self-insurer, and recogniz[ing] liability for the negligent or wrongful acts or omissions of its employees acting within the scope of their official duties.”

Carroll’s lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, called the decision “shocking.”

“Trump’s effort to wield the power of the U.S. government to evade responsibility for his private misconduct is without precedent and shows even more starkly how far he is willing to go to prevent the truth from coming out,” Kaplan said in a statement.

She added: “Trump’s strategy in this case from Day 1 has been delay, delay, and more delay. Our job is to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Caroll took to Twitter to accuse Trump of using Attorney General William Barr to help make the case go away.

“TRUMP HURLS BILL BARR AT ME,” she posted on Twitter. “Just when [Trump] is required to produce documents and DNA in discovery, he sics the DOJ on us. THIS IS UNPRECEDENTED!! My attorney… and I are happy to TAKE THEM ALL ON!”

The defamation lawsuit stems from Trump telling The Hill in June 2019 that he had never met Caroll and would not have raped her because she was “not my type.” Carroll suit also alleges Trump issued a statement in which he called her a liar.

Despite Trump’s insistence that he and Carroll had never met, a photo shows the two of them together at a party in 1987. Trump has said the image is misleading.

Trump’s comments came after she wrote in a book excerpt published in June 2019 by New York Magazine that Trump had pushed her against the wall of a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman and forced himself onto her in either late 1995 or early 1996. She believes security footage captured the two of them together before the assault and that Trump’s genetic material would be found on her clothing.

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