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Opinion When Trump goes low, go low

Summer Zervos sits in the New York County Criminal Court on Dec. 5, 2017. (Barry Williams/AFP/Getty Images)

Michelle Obama had it all wrong. “ When they go low, we go high ” is no way to deal with Donald Trump.

A porn star, a playmate and a contestant who washed out on his reality TV show have become exemplars for doing battle with a president for whom practically nothing is out of bounds. They are showing that the most effective way to deal with him is on his own terms.

The three — Stormy Daniels, Karen McDougal and Summer Zervos — are suing for the right to tell their stories about him. The headaches and unforeseeable turns that these legal fights present would be well understood by a man who, according to a USA Today tally, has filed at least 3,500 lawsuits of his own, for grievances real and imagined.

Adult entertainer Daniels has outmaneuvered the president and his inept lawyer Michael Cohen at nearly every turn. They apparently believed they had bought her silence about the year-long extramarital affair she claims to have had with the future president a decade ago.

Opinion writer Jonathan Capehart joins columnists Karen Tumulty, Christine Emba and Molly Roberts in this clip from the weekly roundtable "It's Only Thursday." (Video: The Washington Post)

But it turns out they had only rented it.

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When Daniels signed a nondisclosure agreement in the weeks before the 2016 election, hardly anyone thought Trump had much chance of winning, especially after the furor over comments he had made about women on the now-famous “Access Hollywood” tape. So $130,000 to stay quiet must have looked too good for Daniels to pass up. (Cohen said the money came from his personal home equity line of credit.)

Three women, Stormy Daniels, Karen McDougal and Summer Zervos, have filed various lawsuits related to encounters with President Trump. (Video: Joyce Koh/The Washington Post)

With her alleged paramour in the Oval Office, however, there is surely much more to be gained from her account, so she is trying to slip free from the agreement on the technicality that Trump never signed it.

Backing out of a deal if there’s a better one to be had? Trump did it for decades. “I’ve made a fortune by using debt, and if things don’t work out I renegotiate the debt. I mean, that’s a smart thing, not a stupid thing,” he boasted to CBS during his presidential campaign. As president, he has reversed himself so many times that his befuddled allies on Capitol Hill are never sure where or if he will land on most issues.

Now, instead of Daniels, it is Trump who is remaining silent — conspicuously so. No tweets, no vicious nicknames, no threats. She, meanwhile, is going on “60 Minutes,” where viewership is likely to be some of its highest ever. Count that as another blow to a president who measures the import of every event by its television ratings.

Daniels seems to be having a great time. She has become a ninja master in Trump’s own medium, smiting trolls on Twitter with a verve that my colleague Monica Hesse compared to “a very smart cat batting off a series of very dumb mice, who come at her under the delusion that the relationship is reversed.” When one man tweeted that she was a “scank,” she responded by correcting his spelling.

McDougal, who was Playboy’s 1998 Playmate of the Year, claims to have had an affair with Trump around the same time as Daniels. But in her case, the arrangement that she is trying to escape is the one she made with the National Enquirer’s parent company, whose chief executive, David Pecker, is close to Trump. In her lawsuit, McDougal claims American Media was working secretly with Cohen to keep her quiet; the company says it contacted Trump’s lawyer only to vet her story.

A takedown by a former playmate would be a sour endnote indeed, given how assiduously Trump styled himself as Playboy’s ideal of libidinous masculinity. In 1990, the magazine’s cover featured the married real-estate developer posing with another playmate, Brandi Brandt. She wore only his tuxedo jacket.

He hung a framed copy of that Playboy in his Trump Tower office. “I was one of the few men in the history of Playboy to be on the cover,” Trump once boasted to a Post reporter.

Zervos, a former contestant from “The Apprentice,” presents a different kind of threat, and potentially the most serious one. She is one of more than a dozen women who have accused the president of unwanted sexual advances, in her case that he kissed her and groped her breasts when she met with him to discuss a job. During his presidential campaign, Trump called them all liars, and threatened to sue.

But Trump never did, empty threats being another of his favorite tactics. It was Zervos who went to court, charging defamation.

On Tuesday, the same day McDougal filed her lawsuit, a New York judge ruled that Zervos’s case can go forward. It was lost on no one that the precedent cited was the one in the sexual harassment lawsuit that ultimately led to the ­impeachment of Bill Clinton.

The Zervos lawsuit opens the possibility that Trump’s other accusers, and maybe even more women, will return to tell their stories under oath. And that the president himself will have to as well.

When Zervos was on the fifth season of “The Apprentice,” Trump fired her because she interrupted him. It turns out she may get in a last word after all.

Read more on this topic:

Laurence H. Tribe and Ron Fein: The public has a right to hear Stormy Daniels, Mr. President

Richard Cohen: Stormy Daniels — not Robert Mueller — might spell Trump’s doom

The Post’s View: Stormy Daniels needs to tell her story

Paul Waldman: Why is Trump fighting his new female accusers so hard?

Greg Sargent: Trump’s new female accusers may put him in greater danger