Sexual harassment allegations against President Donald Trump dating back to his days hosting the reality TV show “The Apprentice” surfaced again Tuesday in a New York courtroom, where the president’s lawyer asked a state judge to dismiss a suit brought by a former contestant who says Trump groped her a decade ago.
Summer Zervos filed a defamation suit after Trump issued a statement appearing to dismiss her allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances when she appeared on the show in 2007, including repeatedly kissing her on the mouth, grabbing her breast and thrusting his genitals at her.
Whether her suit can proceed hinges in part on questions about whether a sitting president can be sued in state court.
Trump’s private attorney Marc Kasowitz argued the president is immune from such lawsuits while he is in office, a claim that stems from a Supreme Court ruling in the 1997 case involving President Bill Clinton and former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones, which found the president is not immune from civil lawsuits while in office but left unanswered questions about whether states can properly manage such suits.
The case itself is unprecedented, Kasowitz answered in response to questions from Judge Jennifer Schecter. There are no cases that “directly address” the question of whether or not states have the jurisdiction to hear such a suit, he said.
But, he argued, allowing the case to proceed would take up an extraordinary amount of the president’s time, and amount to the state “controlling” the president, because it would impinge on his responsibilities, which necessarily occupy him “24/7.” Only a federal court, with co-equal power to the president, has the authority to hear such a case, he said.
Zervos’ attorney Mariann Wang responded that while the president’s responsibilities are unique and all-consuming, “the individual who holds that office is not above the law.” She added that she would be happy to “take a deposition down at Mar-a-Lago”—referring to Trump’s Florida resort, where he often spends winter weekends.
Kasowitz argued the president’s statements denying Zervos’s claims and those made by a group of other women who have separately accused him of unwanted sexual advances didn’t constitute defamation, because they were protected political speech made during the course of the presidential campaign.
Kasowitz also argued that Zervos’ allegations were politically motivated. When she announced them in October of 2016, she said she decided to come forward because she “wanted the American public…to be able to take into account her experiences and Mr. Trump’s denials,” Kasowitz said, citing her own words at the time.
“That’s politics,” Kasowitz said, referring to Zervos’ statement.
He invoked a defamation suit brought against comedian Jerry Seinfeld after he denied that his wife Jessica had plagiarized a cookbook, which was ultimately dismissed. “Merely denying a claim is not in and of itself defamation,” Kasowitz said.
Schecter did not give a timeline for issuing a ruling.
After the hearing, Zervos emerged with Wang and another of her attorneys, Gloria Allred.
“I just want to say that no man is above the law, including the president of the United States,” Allred said.
Zervos’ claims are among allegations made by at least nine other women that they were harassed or sexually assaulted by President Trump.
The hearing came just one day after President Donald Trump endorsed Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused by multiple women of sexually harassing and assaulting them as minors decades ago.
Trump has reportedly tried to cast doubt in recent weeks on the veracity of a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape in which he’s heard telling the show’s then-anchor, Billy Bush, that he’d grabbed women’s genitals. On Monday, Bush wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times: “Of course he said it.”
In recent months, allegations of sexual harassment and assault made against powerful celebrities, entertainment executives and politicians have led to a wave of resignations and firings, as well as recriminations and finger-pointing on Capitol Hill over congressional procedures for handling harassment claims against its own members.