Donald Trump’s lawyers are claiming he is immune while president from defamation claims brought by a former contestant on The Apprentice who accused him of sexual harassment.
The president’s private attorneys made the case in a legal filing in New York this week intended to halt the litigation against Trump by by Summer Zervos, who sued Trump days before his 20 January inauguration. Zervos was one of more than a dozen women who came forward before the November election to accuse Trump of sexual misconduct following the release of a decade-old Access Hollywood recording in which Trump bragged about groping and kissing women without their consent.
In her lawsuit, Zervos said Trump had defamed her while denying the allegations during his campaign. Trump tweeted at the time that Zervos’ charges were “100% fabricated and made-up” and “nonsense”, and also dubbed her and other women who made similar claims “liars”.
Trump’s lawyers cited a 1997 supreme court ruling to say the lawsuit should be barred as it held the potential to distract the president from performing his public duties. The ruling in question, Clinton v Jones, pertained to sexual harassment litigation against then-president Bill Clinton by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones.
The supreme court ultimately ruled in that case that presidents are not immune from civil litigation while in office. But the justices advised that immunity questions “should be decided at the earliest possible stage of the litigation”, due to the importance of and burdens imposed by presidential duties.
There were as many as 75 private lawsuits against Trump when he assumed the office of the presidency, according to an investigation in USA Today. A decision in Trump’s favor would thus have far-reaching consequences.
Zervos, who filed her lawsuit in New York, said Trump aggressively kissed and groped her against her will in his Beverly Hills hotel room in 2007. Her attorney, Gloria Allred, said in a statement Tuesday that Trump is not immune from the defamation lawsuit.
“The United States supreme court address this legal immunity issue in Clinton v Jones and determined unanimously that no man is above the law and that includes the president of United States,” Allred said. “We look forward to arguing this issue in court.”