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How one woman’s defamation suit could shine a light on Trump's sexual assault allegations

Her legal team is seeking documents on any woman who has accused Trump of inappropriate touching.

Summer Zervos and Gloria Allred on January 21, 2017
Summer Zervos and Gloria Allred on January 21, 2017.
Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

One woman’s allegation that Donald Trump kissed and touched her without her consent in 2007 captured renewed attention on Monday, when BuzzFeed News revealed that her lawyers were seeking all documents from his campaign related to allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior.

Summer Zervos, a former contestant on The Apprentice, made her allegations against then-candidate Trump last October. When he denied them, saying that the women who had come forward to accuse him of misconduct were all lying, Zervos sued him for defamation.

As part of that suit, her lawyers have subpoenaed all documents from the Trump campaign that deal with “any woman alleging that Donald J. Trump touched her inappropriately.” The president’s lawyers are trying to get the suit dismissed. But if they fail, the subpoena could have wide-ranging implications, exposing anything the campaign knew about accusations made by 10 or more women.

Summer Zervos says Trump sexually assaulted her when she asked him for advice

In her defamation suit, filed in January in New York state court, Zervos said she initially respected Trump and saw him as a possible mentor. In December 2007, while she was visiting New York, she sought a meeting with him. During that meeting, the suit says, Trump kissed Zervos on the lips twice without asking. Zervos thought this was inappropriate, but “thought perhaps that Mr. Trump just greeted people that way,” and agreed to meet him again, this time at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

At this meeting, the suit says, Zervos thought they would be going out to dinner. Instead, Zervos says Trump kissed her “very aggressively,” touched her breast, and pressed his genitals against her. She said she was not interested, and he seemed angry, but stopped touching her. Later, the general manager of Trump’s golf course offered her a job at half the salary she had told Trump she was seeking, which she worried was Trump’s punishment for not sleeping with him.

Zervos decided to go public, the suit says, when the Access Hollywood tape was released, showing Trump bragging about being able to grab women “by the pussy.” Trump said during a debate on October 9 that he had never done the things he talked about on the tape. But, the suit says, “Ms. Zervos knew that Donald Trump had lied — to the country and to the world — and knew that the statements he made to Billy Bush were not just words or ‘locker room’ talk, but were evidence of his pattern of misconduct towards women. Ms. Zervos felt a responsibility to inform the public of the true facts.”

She sued Trump after he said his accusers were lying

Zervos wasn’t the only woman to make allegations against Trump — at least 17 women have accused him of assaulting or violating them, according to Libby Nelson and Sarah Frostenson at Vox. Several, like Zervos, decided to tell their stories publicly after the Access Hollywood tape was released. Jessica Leeds, for instance, told the New York Times that Trump had touched her breasts and tried to put his hand up her skirt when they were seated next to each other on an airplane many years ago. Natasha Stoynoff, a former writer for People magazine, said that Trump pushed her up against a wall and kissed her while she was reporting on his first anniversary with Melania Trump in 2005.

Trump denied all the allegations against him. “Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign,” he said in a speech in late October 2016. “Total fabrication, the events never happened — never.”

About Zervos specifically, Trump said in a statement, “I never met her at a hotel or greeted her inappropriately a decade ago. That is not who I am as a person, and it is not how I've conducted my life.” His campaign also released a statement by John Barry, Zervos’s cousin, which argued that her allegations were a ploy to get famous. “I think Summer wishes she could still be on reality TV, and in an effort to get that back she’s saying all of these negative things about Mr. Trump,” the statement said.

Zervos’s lawsuit alleges that Trump defamed Zervos with these statements and others, causing her pain and costing her business at the restaurant she owns. “Mr. Trump’s false, defamatory statements about Ms. Zervos — that, among other things, she made up her descriptions of Mr. Trump’s misconduct as a hoax, and that she is creating a ‘phony’ story just so that she can be famous — have been deeply detrimental to Ms. Zervos’s reputation, honor and dignity,” the suit says. Zervos is seeking a retraction and an apology from Trump, as well as damages.

The subpoena could cover more than just Zervos’s case

As part of the defamation suit, Zervos’s lawyers issued a subpoena seeking a variety of documents from the Trump campaign. The subpoena became part of the court file last month, and did not become public until Sunday, when Jessica Garrison and Kendall Taggart of BuzzFeed News reported on it. Zervos’s legal team, which includes Gloria Allred, famous for representing women in high-profile harassment or assault cases, are seeking all documents concerning Zervos and John Barry, but also those concerning Jessica Leeds, Natasha Stoynoff, and seven other women who have accused Trump of misconduct, as well as documents on “any woman alleging that Donald J. Trump touched her inappropriately.”

As Garrison and Taggart report, Trump’s lawyers are trying to have Zervos’s suit dismissed. In July, they argued that the suit was “engineered for political purposes” and that it was part of a plan by Allred to get the president impeached. Trump’s legal team also argues that the president is immune from civil suits in state courts.

As Michael Rios reports at PBS, presidents can be sued in federal court for their actions as private citizens — this was established in Paula Jones’s sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton in 1997. But it’s not clear whether presidents can be sued in state court, and Trump’s legal team says the suit should either be thrown out or delayed until he is no longer president. Trump’s lawyers are supposed to respond to Zervos’s latest motion by October 31, according to Garrison and Taggart.

Ultimately, the Trump team’s argument about state court may only buy them a certain amount of time, said Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law who studies federal jurisdiction and constitutional law. Even if a judge rules that the case can’t be tried in state court, it shouldn’t be hard for Zervos to simply refile in federal court. “I don’t think they have an especially strong case to prevent this from ever getting litigated,” Vladeck said.

If the suit goes forward, it could cause serious problems for Trump. As Rios notes, if the New York court decides it can hear Zervos’s case, that would open the door for others to sue the president in state court. The case could also bring to light any campaign communications that may exist regarding the many women who have publicly accused Trump of harassment or assault, and perhaps even women who have not made public accusations yet.

Trump’s lawyers will probably try to avoid complying with the subpoena, Vladeck said. They may, for instance, argue that campaign documents are protected by executive privilege, and will probably appeal any rulings that don’t go their way. “This is going to get messier before it gets settled,” Vladeck said.

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