- Summer Zervos, who accused Trump of sexually harassing her in 2007, is suing him for defamation because he called her and other accusers liars.
- Trump’s lawyers will argue in a New York court on Tuesday that the lawsuit should be thrown out because he is a sitting president.
- But former President Bill Clinton was deposed while he was a sitting president over allegations of sexual harassment by Paula Jones. Later, when he was found to have lied under oath, he was impeached by the House of Representatives.
- “People are going to find out who this guy really is,” Mindy McGillivray, one of Trump’s accusers, told Business Insider.
While everyone’s talking about special counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation into the Trump campaign’s communication with the Russian government, the president’s lawyers are preparing for an altogether different case.
On Tuesday, in a New York state Supreme Court hearing, they’re expected to try to have a defamation case against the president dismissed. If they fail, the president could be forced to testify on allegations that he sexually harassed more than a dozen women.
The suit was filed by Summer Zervos, a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” who claimed last year that Trump “very aggressively” kissed her, groped her breasts, and began “thrusting” his genitals at her in a 2007 meeting at The Beverly Hills Hotel. Her claim is that Trump damaged her reputation when he called her a liar.
The hearing comes amid a torrent of scrutiny around sexual misconduct by powerful men in the US following bombshell revelations regarding years of alleged sexual abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The allegations cost Weinstein his job and, subsequently, women have come forward with a variety of allegations against high-profile journalists, lawmakers, and executives.
Trump’s lawyers are expected to argue that the suit against him should be thrown out or delayed until after his term on the grounds that a sitting president can’t be sued in state court. Part of their reasoning is that a trial could distract Trump from his official business as president.
The experience of another US president — Bill Clinton — shows that this argument may not hold up. Clinton’s experience also shows how, if Trump lies under oath, he could be impeached.
Clinton v. Jones
“The precedent is not on Trump’s side,” says Susan Low Bloch, a professor at Georgetown University’s law school and an expert in constitutional law.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1997, in Clinton v. Jones, that sitting presidents are not in fact immune from civil-law litigation over something that happened before they took office. The ruling specifically pertained to federal lawsuits. Trump’s lawyers say this case is different because it was filed in a state court.
Trump’s legal team is also expected to argue on Tuesday that the president’s statements referring to his accusers as “liars” amounted to political speech and should therefore be protected from legal action.
“All of the statements occurred on political forums — a campaign website, on Mr. Trump’s Twitter account, in a presidential debate, and at campaign rallies — where the listeners expect to hear public debate, taken as political opinion rather than a defamatory statement,” Trump’s lawyers wrote in a court filing last month.
This argument could be tough to win, unless Trump’s defense can prove that Zervos is a limited public figure, Bloch said.
Zervos’ lawyer, Gloria Allred, said Trump should have to defend what he said in court. Allred has also subpoenaed his campaign for all documents related to the many women who have accused him of sexual harassment.
“We believe that President Trump should be accountable for his statements,” she said in July. “No one enjoys a license to defame based on power, wealth or privilege.”
Zervos was one of 13 women who accused Trump last year of unwanted physical contact over a period spanning more than 30 years. Trump has denied Zervos’ claims, saying he “vaguely” remembers her and that he never met her at a hotel. He later called Zervos and his other accusers “liars” during several campaign appearances and on Twitter.
Zervos, through Allred, declined an interview. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Lying about Lewinsky
If the court decides the suit can move forward, Trump will likely be deposed, meaning he will have to give sworn statements concerning the allegations against him.
Former US President Bill Clinton faced a similar situation as a sitting president when he was sued by Paula Jones, who had accused him of sexual harassment when he was the governor of Arkansas. As part of that suit, Clinton gave a sworn deposition in 1998 in which he denied a sexual relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Clinton later admitted to the affair, after Lewinsky provided grand-jury testimony on her relationship with the president and produced evidence: a dress stained with semen matching Clinton’s DNA.
Kenneth Starr, an independent counsel at the time, concluded that Clinton committed perjury — an impeachable offense — when he denied the affair with Lewinsky. Starr submitted his findings to the US House of Representatives, which voted to impeach Clinton. But the Senate later acquitted him of all charges, and he remained in office.
Like Clinton, Trump could face impeachment if he lied under oath. In that case, it would ultimately be up to Congress to decide whether he was telling the truth.
Trump faces a litany of sexual-harassment allegations
More than a dozen women came forward before the presidential election last year accusing Trump of unwanted sexual advances.
Among them was Jessica Leeds, who said Trump groped her on a flight in the 1980s. She said he grabbed her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt. “He was like an octopus,” she told The New York Times. “His hands were everywhere.”
Kristin Anderson said Trump slipped his hand up her skirt and touched her vagina through her underwear at a New York City nightclub in the early 1990s. Jill Harth said Trump pushed her against a wall, put his hand up her skirt, and tried to kiss her at a dinner in the early 1990s.
Mindy McGillivray said Trump grabbed her buttocks in 2003 when she was 23 years old and working at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s oceanfront resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
“Donald is over 6 feet tall and very intimidating,” McGillivray told Business Insider. “I was vulnerable — a young mother.”
Natasha Stoynoff said she was interviewing Trump in 2005, one year after his marriage to Melania, when he allegedly forced himself on her. “Within seconds he was pushing me against the wall and forcing his tongue down my throat,” she wrote last year in People magazine.
Also in 2005, then 22-year-old Rachel Crooks said she introduced herself to Trump outside an elevator in Trump Tower in Manhattan and that he kissed her on the mouth.
These women and others all came forward following the release of an “Access Hollywood” videotape in which Trump bragged about being able to grab women “by the pussy.” Trump later downplayed the remarks as “locker-room talk” and denied all the allegations of sexual harassment. The New York Times reported this week that Trump has since suggested to lawmakers that it is not him on the tape, citing people who are close to the president or aware of his private conversations.
Polls close, but can you believe I lost large numbers of women voters based on made up events THAT NEVER HAPPENED. Media rigging election!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 16, 2016
100% fabricated and made-up charges, pushed strongly by the media and the Clinton Campaign, may poison the minds of the American Voter. FIX!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 15, 2016
Can’t believe these totally phoney stories, 100% made up by women (many already proven false) and pushed big time by press, have impact!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 17, 2016
Trump also threatened to sue all his accusers.
“Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign — total fabrication,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in October 2016. “The events never happened. Never. All of these liars will be sued after the election is over.”
Trump hasn’t yet filed any suits against his accusers, but he still publicly maintains his innocence.
When asked about the Zervos subpoena in October, which demands all campaign communication regarding Trump’s accusers, Trump called it “fake news.”
“All I can say is it’s totally fake news, just fake,” he said. “It’s fake. It’s made-up stuff, and it’s disgraceful what happens, but that happens in the world of politics.”
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders later reaffirmed that the Trump administration’s official position is that all of Trump’s accusers are lying.
Trump accuser says the truth will come out
McGillivray, one of the women who said she was groped by Trump, says it’s the president who is lying.
She told Business Insider that she was terrified to talk publicly about the incident in 2003 when she says Trump grabbed her buttocks.
“I was a nervous wreck,” McGillivray said. “But I felt like this was a time to be courageous. The guy’s a liar and I wanted people to know that.”
McGillivray told her story to the Palm Beach Post in October, and said she subsequently became the target of a barrage of death threats online. She and her daughter fled their home in Florida for three weeks to escape the national attention.
Regardless of what happens with Zervos’ suit, McGillivray said she’s confident that Americans will ultimately find out the truth about the sexual-harassment allegations against Trump.
“People are going to find out who this guy really is,” she said.