By Gothamist |

Summer Zervos Defamation Lawsuit Against Trump Can Move Forward, NY Court Rules: Gothamist

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A panel of New York appellate judges have ruled that a defamation suit against President Donald Trump may move forward. The suit concerns Summer Zervos, one of the many women who have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, and finds precedent in the sexual harassment lawsuit that ultimately ended in Bill Clinton's impeachment. Personally, I find the parallel fascinating.

I'm sure you will recall the moment when, in the death throes of the 2016 presidential campaign, a certain set of tapes made their way into the news cycle. You will remember their contents—you can't unhear them! you will die with Trump's vulgar comments seared inside your brainspace!—so I won't rehash them here. Suffice it to say, the Access Hollywood tapes showcased a pre-presidential Trump bragging about predatory behavior tantamount to assault, and that voluntary admission prompted a wave of allegations from women with similar experiences. Zervos was one.

In 2007, former Apprentice contestant Zervos met with the real estate mogul at Trump Tower; according to her lawsuit, she believed they would discuss a professional opportunity. Rather than talking shop, however, Trump kissed her on the mouth twice, without pausing to ask if that would be an okay and normal thing to do during a job interview. Zervos says she found all this unsolicited mouth-kissing inappropriate, but after conferring with a friend and her parents, "concluded that this must just be the way that Mr. Trump greeted people." So when he called her a few weeks later to say he was coming to California, she agreed to take another meeting with him at the Beverly Hills hotel.

That's the same hotel where Stormy Daniels says Trump made her watch shark week with him, and where Karen McDougal says that Trump offered her money after they'd just had sex. If the stories are true, Trump seems to have used it as a sort of safehouse for his (alleged) extramarital affairs.

In any case, when Zervos showed up, she expected to continue discussions about this role at the Trump Organization, according to her suit. Instead, she says, Trump's security guard led her back to his bungalow, where Trump immediately forced himself on her: Allegedly, he would start kissing her "open-mouthed," she would push him off, and move to a different part of the room; he would follow her, becoming increasingly grabby. He groped her breast, according to the lawsuit, tried to pull her down on his bed, and eventually "press[ed] his genitals against her." Every time, she says she shoved him away, telling him to "get real," and that she had come for a business dinner. Zervos believes her rejection is the reason why Trump dropped any pretense of interest about hiring her.

When she heard Trump publicly dismiss the Access Hollywood tapes as "locker room talk," according to the lawsuit, she became angry, because she knew firsthand how he really treated women. She went public with her allegations, and Trump denied the whole thing. Further, he called all the women who came forward with similar stories liars, which is how we landed here: With a defamation suit. The statute of limitations may have expired on the alleged pervy behavior itself, but due to Trump's mud-slinging in the aftermath of the tapes, Zervos's suit says she has weathered "threats of violence, economic harm, and reputational damage."

Zervos filed her defamation suit in January 2017, and Trump's lawyers have repeatedly tried (and failed) to get the courts to drop it, arguing that a sitting president can't be sued by a civilian. But another sitting president famously saw his predatory past catch up with him while he occupied the Oval Office: Bill Clinton. The nation learned about Clinton's advances on a White House intern because of a sexual harassment suit filed by one Paula Jones, an Arkansas woman who said Clinton made a number of inappropriate advances on her when he was the state's governor and she was a low-level state employee. (Jones, in a supremely ironic twist, appeared alongside Trump at a presidential debate, as he attempted to deflect attention away from his hot-mic scandal and onto his opponent's husband.)

Anyway, Clinton was asked about his relationship with Lewinsky during depositions for Clinton v. Jones, and he lied about it, knocking down a series of dominoes that ended in impeachment.

Now, Trump's blanket dismissal of his accusers, and his rebuke of Zervos in particular, do not amount to perjury, as he did not place his hand on a Bible and swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth before he started screaming smear campaign. However, the precedent Clinton v. Jones provides means, according to a clutch of our local appellate judges, that Zervos v. Trump may proceed. That, in turn, means the president may have to clarify, in a legally binding scenario, whether or not he molested Zervos, and potentially some of these other women. This possibility intrigues me.

In December 2017, I asked Marjorie Mesidor—a workplace discrimination lawyer and a partner at the Manhattan law firm Phillips & Associates—whether or not one might reasonably hope that Zervos v. Trump could precipitate a similar outcome as Clinton v. Jones. Mesidor described the shot as long, and yet I am still thinking about it.

Mesidor noted that a "sea of orchestrated events" had to unfold just so in order to raise the specter of impeachment during the Clinton era. Still, she acknowledged, litigating the Zervos case would require Trump to discuss the sexual harassment accusation "in-depth," as if that, and not the alleged lying about it, were the transgression on trial. And then you have to ask yourself what the odds are that the president would tell the truth. As Mesidor put it, referencing Watergate, "It's not the crime that gets you, it's the cover-up."

And really, that apt observance could apply to any number of the more high-profile investigations into Trump's possible dealings. We'll just have to wait and see.