A New York judge said Tuesday that a defamation lawsuit against President Trump related to an allegation that he sexually harassed a former “Apprentice” contestant may go forward.
Summer Zervos filed the suit last year after Trump said publicly during the 2016 presidential campaign that she and other women accusing him of unwanted sexual contact were making up their claims. Trump sought to block the legal action, but New York Supreme Court Judge Jennifer G. Schecter — citing court precedent that ultimately led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998 — said that “a sitting president is not immune from being sued in federal court for unofficial acts.”
The ruling came the same day that Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model, filed a lawsuit on the other side of the country against American Media, owner of the National Enquirer, seeking to be released from a contract she said paid her $150,000 to keep quiet about an alleged affair with Trump.
In her complaint, filed in a California court, McDougal said “both the relationship and the cover-up are open secrets” but added that she feels obligated to speak out. Her lawsuit followed on the heels of a suit filed by Stormy Daniels, an adult film star who said she was paid to keep quiet about her own alleged affair with Trump long before he took office.
The Zervos ruling, along with the cases filed by McDougal and Daniels, added to the mounting legal headaches facing Trump regarding his history with women. A much-anticipated interview with Daniels is scheduled to air Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” and CNN announced that it would air an interview with McDougal on Thursday.
Trump has repeatedly said that all of the women who accused him of touching them inappropriately were lying — a sentiment his White House reiterated as questions resurfaced about these allegations. The White House did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Though Trump insisted during the campaign he had proof these women were all lying and vowed to sue them, no lawsuits materialized. Instead, the only court action to stem from these allegations has been Zervos’s claim that he defamed her and his other accusers by branding them liars.
Marc Kasowitz, Trump’s personal attorney, did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the ruling Tuesday.
Mariann Meier Wang, co-counsel for Zervos with women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred, wrote in an email: “The rule of law and sound reason have prevailed today. 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.”
In an email, Allred wrote: “I am very happy.”
At least a dozen women aired complaints about past sexual misconduct by Trump before the election, although Zervos is the only one to bring court action. Jessica Leeds, 76, who alleged Trump groped her on a plane three decades ago, said she was “delighted” to hear of the New York judge’s ruling.
“If Summer is successful, this will open the door for other cases,” Leeds said.
The ruling Tuesday was blunt in dismissing an argument made by Trump’s attorneys that he cannot be sued in state court while in office.
“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.”
Schecter referred to a court case involving Clinton and Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee who accused Clinton of sexual harassing her while he was serving as the state’s governor. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Jones’s lawsuit against Clinton could proceed, arguing that sitting presidents could be sued for private actions that predated their time in office; Trump’s attorneys have argued that case applied to federal litigation and did not apply in state courts.
In her ruling, Schecter also dismissed a request that the case be stayed for the duration of Trump’s time in office, saying that such “a lengthy and categorical stay is not justified” just because a president can be called away to attend to a crisis. If that happens, Schecter wrote, Trump’s federal responsibilities would be given priority.
Schecter wrote that Trump’s comments calling Zervos a liar “cannot be characterized simply as opinion, heated rhetoric or hyperbole.”
Maria Glover, a law professor at Georgetown University, said that the decision will almost certainly go to appeal.
“The issue of whether a president can have rights and liabilities adjudicated in state court is likely to reach the highest court in New York, in Albany,” she said. “From there, it could — and perhaps likely will — be appealed to the Supreme Court. This lengthy set of appeals means that we won’t be getting Trump’s deposition quite so fast.”
Even as they considered an appeal, lawyers representing Trump also had to monitor another lawsuit — this one filed in early March in Los Angeles Superior Court by Daniels, who has said Trump sought to silence her shortly before the 2016 election. The $130,000 hush agreement was intended to prevent her from speaking out about an alleged affair that began, Daniels said, at a celebrity golf tournament in 2006.
Daniels shared her story with In Touch magazine in 2011, but the interview was not published until the Wall Street Journal reported on the affair and payout earlier this year. Daniels took a polygraph examination as part of that interview process, the magazine’s editorial director said.
A court document provided to The Washington Post on Tuesday by Michael Avenatti, an attorney for Daniels, describes the polygraph examination, which concluded that Daniels was being “truthful” about her allegations of a sexual encounter with Trump.
Responding to criticism Tuesday on Twitter, Daniels tweeted: “Technically I didn’t sleep with the POTUS 12 years ago. There was no sleeping (hehe) and he was just a goofy reality TV star. But I digress...People DO care that he lied about it, had me bullied, broke laws to cover it up, etc. And PS...I am NOT going anywhere.”
Zervos first made public her claims against Trump at an October 2016 news conference as one of a parade of women who accused him of misconduct after the release of an “Access Hollywood” recording capturing the future president boasting in graphic language about groping women. At a presidential debate, Trump denied ever doing the things he described in the recording, which some of his accusers said prompted them to come forward.
Zervos has accused Trump of aggressively kissing her and groping her breasts while she was pursuing a job at his company, charges he said were untrue.
In January 2017, Zervos filed a suit in New York State Supreme Court against Trump, arguing that Trump defamed her by denying her account and calling his accusers “liars.” Attorneys for Trump pushed back on multiple fronts, arguing that the suit was “politically motivated” and was built around “allegations of events that never occurred.”
Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.