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In ‘Apprentice’ defamation case, Trump will argue he is immune from lawsuits in state courts until he leaves office

Summer Zervos, a former contestant on “The Apprentice,” said Jan. 17, 2017, that she had filed a defamation lawsuit against President Trump. (Video: Reuters)
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President Trump plans to argue that as president he is immune from all civil litigation filed in state court until he leaves office, a lawyer for the president wrote in a legal filing in New York this week in a case related to allegations that he sexually harassed a former contestant on the reality show “The Apprentice.”

Summer Zervos is suing Trump in New York, arguing that Trump defamed her when he denied her allegations during the presidential campaign, calling her and other women who made similar claims “liars.” He also called her a “phony” and labeled her allegation a “hoax.” Zervos, who appeared on the television show in 2006, alleges that Trump groped and aggressively kissed her against her will during a 2007 encounter at a Los Angeles hotel, after Zervos sought a job with the Trump Organization. Trump has denied Zervos's allegations and said her story was a “total fabrication.”

The Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that litigation against the president over conduct unrelated to his public office can proceed while he is in office. That ruling came as former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones sued President Bill Clinton for sexual harassment. However, the justices said courts should show deference in scheduling and other matters to the heavy burdens of the presidency.

Because of that deference, Trump lawyer Marc Kasowitz wrote in a motion filed Monday that the Zervos case should be put on hold until the court can resolve the issue of whether Trump can be sued in state courts. He wrote that the issue was raised, but not decided, in the Paula Jones case, which involved a federal harassment suit.

[Read the legal filing]

“Defendant Donald J. Trump, the President of the United States, intends to file a motion to dismiss this action on the ground, among others, that the United States Constitution, including the Supremacy Clause contained therein, immunizes the President from being sued in state court while in office,” Kasowitz wrote.

A ruling that Trump cannot be sued in state courts would have implications far beyond the case of the former “Apprentice” contestant. Even if a judge rules against Trump, the legal wrangling could delay the defamation case, which is still in its early stages. Kasowitz argued that all discovery in the case should be put on hold until the issue is resolved.

He did not respond to a request for further comment. Gloria Allred, who is representing Zervos, said in a statement she did not believe Trump enjoys immunity from the defamation suit. “Summer seeks vindication of her rights and reputation for what her lawsuit alleges was personal misconduct by then candidate Trump before his having been elected to the office of the President of the United States,” Allred said in a statement. “The United States Supreme Court addressed this legal immunity issue in Clinton v. Jones and determined unanimously that no man is above the law and that includes the President of the United States. We look forward to arguing this issue in court.”

Woman accuses Donald Trump of grabbing her, touching her breast in 1998. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Jones case helps illustrate the potential perils of civil litigation for the president. After losing at the Supreme Court, Clinton ultimately settled the Jones case without admitting fault. Before he did, however, he was required to sit for a deposition in the matter, where he was accused of lying about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, which led to his impeachment.

One of Jones's lawyers who successfully argued Clinton was not immune from such lawsuits was George T. Conway III, the husband to Trump aide Kellyanne Conway. Trump has nominated George Conway to lead the Justice Department's civil division.

Eleven women spoke publicly before the election, accusing Trump of inappropriately touching or kissing them. They stepped forward after Trump denied ever touching a woman without her consent during a presidential debate in October.

[Here are all the women who have publicly accused Trump of touching them inappropriately]

“Have you ever done those things?” Trump was asked by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, regarding comments Trump made during a taping of “Access Hollywood” in 2005, when he bragged about groping and kissing women without their prior permission. “I will tell you: No, I have not,” Trump responded.

During the campaign, Trump asserted that each of his accusers was lying and vowed to sue the women for making the claims. He has not so far filed suit against any of the women.