A judge ruled Tuesday that a former “Apprentice” contestant’s defamation lawsuit against President Trump may proceed, potentially allowing her lawyers to begin collecting evidence to support her claim that he forcibly kissed and groped her years ago.
The decision in the case brought by Summer Zervos came on the same day a former Playboy playmate, Karen McDougal, sued the publisher of the National Enquirer for the right to break her silence about the 10-month affair she says she had with Trump more than a decade ago.
The nearly simultaneous developments added to the political and legal challenges for the president, who has faced weeks of reports about his alleged affair with another woman, porn star Stormy Daniels, and his attorney’s effort to buy her silence.
All three women are now seeking to tell their stories on their own terms. McDougal is scheduled to give an interview Thursday to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, while “60 Minutes” is scheduled to air an interview with Daniels on Sunday.
As she rejected Trump’s effort to block Zervos’s lawsuit from proceeding, New York Supreme Court Justice Jennifer G. Schecter cited precedent from the Paula Jones case against President Bill Clinton, which led to his impeachment in 1998.
“No one is above the law,” Schecter wrote. “It is settled that the President of the United States has no immunity and is ‘subject to the laws’ for purely private acts.”
Zervos has said that Trump kissed her against her will when she visited him at Trump Tower in December 2007, after she had left his show, and that he kissed her, groped her breast and “began to press his genitals against her” when they met for dinner later that month in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
She first spoke publicly in October 2016 at a news conference with other women accusing Trump of misconduct. She filed the defamation suit the following January, after Trump called the women “liars” and vowed to sue them.
Zervos’s attorneys have said that, in the legal process known as discovery, they would seek a deposition from Trump. It is likely, though, that Trump’s attorneys will appeal Schecter’s ruling, and a deposition, if there ever is one, could be months or years away.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to prove that the Defendant falsely branded Ms. Zervos a phony for telling the truth about his unwanted sexual groping,” Mariann Meier Wang, co-counsel for Zervos with Gloria Allred, wrote in an email.
Marc Kasowitz and Michael Cohen, two of Trump’s personal attorneys, did not respond to requests for comment. The White House also did not respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s attorneys had argued that the president cannot be sued in state court and also that his comments were political opinion and, as a result, “squarely protected by the First Amendment.” Schecter dismissed those arguments.
McDougal’s lawsuit is against American Media Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer, which she says paid her $150,000 in exchange for her silence.
McDougal is asking the court to declare her contract with AMI void, saying her story about the president “is core political speech entitled to the highest protection under the law.”
AMI did not respond to a request for comment.
The lawsuit, in Los Angeles Superior Court, comes two weeks after Daniels sued Trump to invalidate her own confidentiality agreement. Daniels’s deal was with Cohen, who has said he “facilitated” a payment of $130,000 using his own money. Cohen has sought to keep Daniels quiet through private arbitration, alleging in a court filing that she could owe as much as $20 million for violating the agreement.
In an effort to build anticipation for the interview, her attorney, Michael Avenatti, on Tuesday released a 2011 report on the results of a polygraph test that Daniels took as part of a magazine interview about the alleged affair. The report says Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, was being “truthful” in saying she and Trump had unprotected sex.
In an interview, Avenatti said he recently paid $25,000 for video footage of the polygraph exam “in order to avoid one or more third parties from obtaining the information and destroying it or using it for nefarious means.”
He posted an image from the video on Twitter of Daniels sitting in a chair and strapped to a polygraph machine.
“I am not going anywhere,” Daniels wrote on Twitter Tuesday.
McDougal’s lawsuit in some respects echoes a complaint made to the Federal Election Commission by the government watchdog group Common Cause alleging that AMI coordinated with the Trump campaign when it negotiated a “catch and kill” agreement to ensure McDougal’s story was quashed. The complaint says the payments were intended to influence the election and should have been reported as in-kind campaign donations.
“Her complaint today reinforces what we alleged in our complaint,” Paul S. Ryan, a Common Cause vice president, said of McDougal’s lawsuit.
McDougal’s 10-month relationship with Trump remained a secret until May 2016, the lawsuit says, when another Playboy playmate alluded to the affair on Twitter, prompting McDougal to explore how she might tell her story about the Republican presidential nominee.
McDougal hired Keith Davidson, a Los Angeles lawyer. Over a dinner involving “multiple bottles of wine,” the suit says, Davidson told her that AMI had put $500,000 in an escrow account and that a seven-figure publishing deal awaited her.
He later acknowledged that there had been no such escrow payment, according to the complaint. The lawsuit alleges that Davidson was working with AMI executives to fool McDougal into signing a contract that was not in her interest, falsely allowing her to believe the tabloid would publish regular fitness columns under her name. It also alleges that Cohen was briefed on the deal.
“We are confident that the so-called contract will be invalidated, and are eager for Ms. McDougal to be able to move forward with her life with the privacy she deserves,” said McDougal’s lawyer, Peter K. Stris.
In a statement Tuesday, Davidson said he “fulfilled his obligations and zealously advocated for Ms. McDougal to accomplish her stated goals at that time.”
AMI’s offer to buy her story for $150,000 was not to publish it but to bury it. By then, McDougal had “cold feet” about telling the story publicly, the lawsuit says. Davidson also told her that the deal meant she would appear on two magazine covers and she would write dozens of fitness columns for AMI’s print and online magazines, the suit says.
But the agreement did not actually guarantee that AMI would publish her columns, according to the complaint.
Still, the company was swift to threaten McDougal with legal action should she speak about the agreement, the suit says, as it did after she gave an interview to the New Yorker last month. AMI’s general counsel emailed McDougal’s attorney to threaten her with “considerable monetary damages” if she said anything more.
“Ms. McDougal thought (naively) that such a deal could give her the best of all worlds — her private story could stay private, she could make money, and she could revitalize her career,” the suit says. “What she did not realize was that she would end up treated as a puppet by powerful men colluding to achieve their own financial and political ends.”
In a statement Tuesday, McDougal said, “I just want the opportunity to set the record straight and move on with my life, free from this company, its executives, and its lawyers.”