President Trump's lawyers argued in a new court filing late Tuesday that he was expressing a political opinion last year when he called accusations of sexual misconduct against him as false and the accusers "liars," seeking to dismiss a defamation complaint by a woman who said he groped her.
Summer Zervos, a former contestant on Trump’s reality television show “The Apprentice” and now a California restaurant owner, filed her lawsuit against Trump in January, three days before his inauguration.
In October 2016, Zervos accused Trump of aggressively kissing her and groping her breasts during a 2007 meeting that took place when she was seeking a job at his company. Her lawsuit claims that he made defamatory statements by describing as liars women who came forward last year to accuse him of misconduct.
Marc Kasowitz, an attorney for Trump, said in a statement that there is “no merit” to her case, adding that it “is based on allegations of events that never occurred.” He described it as “nothing more than a politically-motivated lawsuit” stemming from accusations made in a news conference weeks before the presidential election.
In the new 36-page legal filing, Trump’s attorneys argue that previous legal cases have established “wide latitude” for political speech, and that Trump’s comments were effectively campaign rhetoric, coming in the context of the heated 2016 presidential campaign.
“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,” they argued.
A New York State Supreme Court judge is considering Trump’s motion to have the case thrown out.
Zervos is one of 11 women who spoke out during the 2016 campaign and accused Trump, then a Republican presidential candidate, of unwanted touching or kissing.
Trump denied the allegations, calling them “pure fiction” and labeling the women “horrible, horrible liars.” He vowed to sue his accusers and promised evidence that would refute their claims, although nearly a year later, neither the lawsuits nor such evidence has materialized.
Trump, asked about the Zervos case last month, called it “made-up stuff” and “disgraceful.” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said last week that the Trump administration’s official position is that all of Trump’s accusers are lying.
Through her attorney Gloria Allred, Zervos has declined interview requests; Allred said Zervos does not plan to give media interviews during the litigation process.
As part of the case, Zervos’s attorneys have sought to subpoena documents from Trump’s campaign related to any of the women who have accused him of inappropriate sexual contact. The subpoena remains on hold while Trump’s lawyers seek to have the case dismissed.
His attorneys previously argued that a sitting U.S. president cannot be sued in state court.
In their new filing, Trump’s lawyers cited a New York State Supreme Court judge’s ruling in January dismissing a defamation complaint by Cheryl Jacobus, a political strategist and television commentator who claimed that Trump defamed her by insulting her on Twitter. That judge found that his statements were not defamatory.
The president’s lawyers argued that Trump had a First Amendment right to call the claims by Zervos and other women false. They said that by accusing him of sexual misconduct to the media, Zervos was “explicitly soliciting” Trump to engage in the debate in an effort to affect the election.
“This is a politically-driven action, brought against a sitting President for exercising his First Amendment right to speak on political and public matters concerning, among other things, his own qualifications for President, the media’s role in the election process, and the tactics of his opponent, Hillary Clinton,” his attorneys argued.
Trump’s attorneys also said that he did not specifically call Zervos a liar.
“Here, Mr. Trump was merely defending his character and qualifications for office from the false attacks Ms. Zervos leveled against him just a few weeks before the Presidential election,” they argued.
Trump’s attorneys again asked for the dismissal of Zervos’s suit, or a stay in the case while Trump is president, saying the claim is a civil action unrelated to his official duties as president.
The closely watched lawsuit is unfolding amid heightened public scrutiny of allegations of sexual misconduct by powerful men.
Trump’s accusers’ complaints were made public during the 2016 campaign following the emergence of an “Access Hollywood” video that captured Trump bragging in graphic terms about kissing women and grabbing them by the genitals.
Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.