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It was a bad day in court for Donald Trump’s efforts to silence women

A former Playboy model, a sexual assault allegation, and a crumbling strategy of secrecy.

Karen McDougal, who is suing for the right to speak publicly about President Donald Trump, pictured here in 2010
Karen McDougal, who is suing for the right to speak publicly about President Donald Trump, pictured here in 2010.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Playboy
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.

The American public might be about to learn a lot more about President Trump’s history with women — in court.

Karen McDougal, a fitness expert and former Playboy model, filed suit on Tuesday in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeking the right to speak publicly about an alleged affair between her and Trump. She’s the second woman to file such a suit. Adult film actress Stormy Daniels sued Trump earlier this month.

Also on Tuesday, a New York Supreme Court judge ruled that a defamation suit filed against Trump by Summer Zervos, a former contestant on The Apprentice, could move forward. Zervos says that Trump sexually assaulted her in 2007.

As part of Zervos’s suit, her lawyers have subpoenaed all Trump campaign documents dealing with “any woman alleging that Donald J. Trump touched her inappropriately.” The Trump team had sought to block the suit; now that it’s moving forward, they might actually be forced to produce those documents, if they exist.

Tuesday’s legal developments move the country that much closer to hearing the full story about Trump’s past, including whether he authorized or had a hand in payoffs to women with whom he had extramarital affairs, and what his campaign knew about allegations of sexual misconduct against him.

They also chip away at the barriers — legal and otherwise — that Trump’s associates appear to have created to keep women from talking about their experiences with the man who is now our president.

Karen McDougal is suing for the right to tell her story about Trump

In documents reviewed by Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker, McDougal says she had an affair with Trump in 2006 and 2007. In August 2016, after Trump won the Republican nomination for president, she signed away the rights to her story to American Media Inc. (AMI), the company that publishes the National Enquirer, according to Farrow.

In exchange, she got $150,000, 45 percent of which went to various middlemen, and was told that AMI would publish 100 fitness columns by her. The deal was apparently an example of a tactic called “catch and kill,” in which David Pecker, the chair of AMI and a personal friend of Trump’s, would buy the rights to a story only to make sure it never saw the light of day.

But now McDougal wants to speak out. So she’s suing AMI, arguing that she was misled about the deal. Like Stormy Daniels, she is seeking “declaratory relief” — she wants the court to declare her deal with AMI invalid, which would help her tell her story publicly without fear of legal repercussions.

According to Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times, McDougal says in her suit that when she signed the deal, she believed AMI would have to publish her columns — she later learned it only had “the right” to publish them. The suit alleges that both McDougal’s lawyer, Keith Davidson, and AMI’s chief content officer, Dylan Howard, pressured McDougal to sign.

“As A.M.I. and Mr. Davidson pushed her to sign the deal on Aug. 5, Ms. McDougal expressed misgivings,” Rutenberg writes. “But, her suit says, Mr. Davidson and Mr. Howard argued in an urgent Skype call that the deal to promote her would ‘kick start and revitalize’ her career, given that she was ‘old now.’ She was 45.”

McDougal’s suit also says that Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, was secretly involved in her deal with AMI. Cohen paid $130,000 to Stormy Daniels in October 2016 in exchange for her promise not to speak out about Trump, a payment some say may have been an illegal campaign contribution.

Daniels’s suit is ongoing, and she is reportedly set to appear on 60 Minutes on March 25. McDougal’s suit is sure to increase scrutiny on the president.

“The lawsuit filed today aims to restore her right to her own voice,” her new lawyer, Peter K. Stris, told the Times.

Summer Zervos’s lawsuit could expose even more allegations

Summer Zervos’s story about Trump starts around the same time as McDougal’s. In December 2007, she says, she sought a meeting with Trump, hoping he could help her in her career. At the meeting, she says, he kissed her twice without asking; at a second meeting, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, she says he grabbed her breasts and pressed his genitals against her.

Zervos began speaking about her experiences publicly in October 2016, after she heard Trump talking about grabbing women “by the pussy” on the Access Hollywood tape. Trump pushed back, saying, “every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign,” and of Zervos specifically, “I never met her at a hotel or greeted her inappropriately a decade ago.” So in January 2017, Zervos sued for defamation — her suit argues that Trump’s comments about her “have been deeply detrimental to Ms. Zervos’s reputation, honor and dignity.”

Trump’s lawyers have been trying to get the case dismissed. The Supreme Court decided in Clinton v. Jones, Paula Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Bill Clinton, that the president can be sued in federal court for “unofficial acts” — that is, actions committed outside his or her official capacity as president. Trump’s lawyers argued, however, that the president could not be sued for such acts in state court. On Tuesday, a judge rejected that argument, allowing Zervos’s case to go forward.

That means Trump’s team might have to reveal campaign communications not just about Zervos, but about any woman who has accused Trump of sexual misconduct — including women who may not have gone public yet. Of course, Trump’s lawyers will probably fight the subpoena — but on Tuesday, they lost an important battle in their effort to keep the case out of the public eye.

Accounts from McDougal and others over the past few months have suggested a complex edifice built up around Trump — maintained by friends and lawyers, composed of money and nondisclosure agreements, and intended to protect Trump from having to face the consequences of women speaking publicly about their experiences. Tuesday’s legal developments are the latest sign that, piece by piece, that edifice might be coming down.

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