Just days before he’s set to be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump has been hit with a defamation lawsuit from a former Apprentice contestant who says he engaged in sexually inappropriate contact with her.
Shortly before Election Day, Trump faced a barrage of sexual assault accusations from many women following the release of a bombshell video showing him boasting to Access Hollywood’s Billy Bush about grabbing women’s genitals. Sumner Zervos, who appeared on season five of The Apprentice, was one of the accusers. At that time, Trump responded at a rally in Pennsylvania, “All of these liars will be sued after the election is over.”
Trump never sued. But Zervos hasn’t let go.
On Tuesday, she appeared alongside her attorney Gloria Allred at a press conference to announce the suit, filed in New York.
Allred told The Hollywood Reporter in December that, even if Trump didn’t follow up on his threat to sue his accusers for defamation, one of her clients might strike first.
Zervos accuses Trump of kissing her twice in 2007 and attacking her in a hotel room. According to her complaint, she confided in family and friends at the time. She alleges that Trump took an interest in mentoring her, and as a result, she “decided that Mr. Trump’s behavior had either been an isolated set of incidents, or perhaps that he had even regretted the behavior. She continued to look up to him for his success as a businessman, and spoke highly of him after he announced his candidacy.”
But that changed upon the revelation of the Access Hollywood tapes and the Oct. 9, 2016, debate where she alleges in the complaint, “Mr. Trump told the world a boldface lie: he stated in response to a direct question from Anderson Cooper that [he] had not ever done any of the things that he had bragged about to Billy Bush.”
The complaint zeroes in on Trump’s initial statement upon Zervos’ allegation that he “never met [Ms. Zervos] at a hotel or greeted her inappropriately,” along with tweets how his accuser “made up events THAT NEVER HAPPENED.” She also points to comments of “100% fabricated and made-up charges,” “totally false,” and so forth, including, “Every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign.”
“In doing so, he used his national and international bully pulpit to make false factual statements to denigrate and verbally attack Ms. Zervos and the other women who publicly reported his sexual assaults in October 2016,” states the complaint (read here). “Mr. Trump knew that his false, disparaging statements would be heard and read by people around the world, and that these women, including Summer Zervos, would be subjected to threats of violence, economic harm, and reputational damage. In his effort to win the Presidency and counter the damage to his election prospects caused by his own recorded words with Billy Bush, Mr. Trump knowingly, intentionally and maliciously threw each and every one of these women under the bus, with conscious disregard of the impact that repeatedly calling them liars would have upon their lives and reputations.”
Zervos likely wouldn’t be able to prevail in a lawsuit for sexual assault thanks to the statute of limitations. Instead, she’s echoing the legal strategy by many of Bill Cosby’s accusers by suing over comments that allegedly branded her a liar. To win, she will have to show that Trump’s statements were “of and concerning” her. Zervos also will need to beat back a defense likely to come from the president-elect — that his statement represented opinion. As shown in the Cosby cases, courts throughout the nation have come to different judgments about whether denials of sexual assault charges are capable of defamatory meaning.
Just last week, the president-elect beat a libel lawsuit filed against him by political strategist Cheryl Jacobus. She sued for defamation after Trump tweeted that she begged him for a job and he turned her down. The judge there ruled that Trump’s statements qualified as opinions. Right before the holidays, the president-elect cleared another legal mess from his plate and agreed to a $25 million settlement to resolve the Trump University fraud lawsuits.
Suing a sitting president is logistically complicated, and courts often are deferential to their schedules, but Zervos will take some hope from the Supreme Court’s 1996 ruling in Paula Jones’ sexual harassment case against Bill Clinton. There, Justice John Paul Stevens decided that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t protect the president from the burdens of private litigation. Instead, it’s possible that Trump may have to give a deposition that explores his history with women, although his attorneys will surely attempt to limit the scope of questioning.
Zervos is seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages, plus an order that he retract defamatory statements and apologize.
Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks issued a statement Tuesday afternoon in response to the suit: “More of the same from Gloria Allred. There is no truth to this absurd story.”
Jan. 17, 2:55 p.m. Updated with a statement from Trump’s representative.