Trump’s Sexual History Could Imperil Him If He Testifies
(Bloomberg) -- Adult film star Stephanie Clifford’s prime-time interview offered the second intimate account in 72 hours of Donald Trump’s purported extramarital sexual behavior -- disclosures that could deepen the president’s legal difficulties if they ultimately force him to testify about his conduct.
Clifford, known as Stormy Daniels, appeared Sunday on CBS’s “60 Minutes” and said she had sex with Trump in 2006, the year after he married Melania Trump. In the interview, Clifford recanted a statement, issued by Trump’s lawyer under her name in January, that denied the affair. She also said she was physically threatened in 2011 to stay silent.
Her account closed a week of tell-all interviews and legal challenges from women in Trump’s past. Former Playboy model Karen McDougal, in an earlier interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, said she began a 10-month affair with Trump in 2006 and that she also took money to stay silent before the 2016 presidential election. Both women chose to break non-disclosure agreements and have filed lawsuits seeking to undo the contracts.
These high-profile media interviews could embolden other women, if there are any, to come out from behind NDAs and expose sexual encounters with the thrice-married Trump. “If these two women can do it, who knows how many other NDAs this guy might have out there with other women,” said Shira Scheindlin, a retired federal judge.
Like President Bill Clinton before him, Trump could face legal peril if he must testify about his sexual history in civil lawsuits by Clifford and Summer Zervos, a onetime contestant on Trump’s reality-television show.
Clinton was impeached on perjury and obstruction of justice charges accusing him of misleading a federal grand jury about his sexual relationship with intern Monica Lewinsky and urging others to lie to hide his actions. The charges stemmed in part from his testimony in a sexual harassment lawsuit by Paula Jones, in which he denied having had sexual relations with Lewinsky. The Senate acquitted him at trial.
“The big danger to Trump is that he can be deposed and the women can be deposed,” said Robert Bennett, who represented Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal. “He’s got to tell the truth. The laws of perjury apply to a civil deposition.”
The prospect of Trump responding to lawyers in a civil case grew stronger last week. A New York state judge said on March 20 that Trump, his political office notwithstanding, must defend a defamation suit filed by Zervos, a contestant on “The Apprentice” who alleges Trump touched her breast and pressed his genitals against her in 2007, and defamed her on the campaign trail in 2016 by calling her a liar.
“No one is above the law,” said Justice Jennifer Schecter of the New York State Supreme Court.
The Zervos ruling may pose particular problems for Trump, said Dana Hobart, a lawyer at the Buchalter law firm in Los Angeles.
“This can open up the hornet’s nest,” Hobart said. In contrast to the other legal cases, Zervos “has the right to discovery about what he knew and to prove that he lied.”
Civil litigation can be full of surprises, as Trump knows from his decades of work as a real-estate developer. Aggressive lawyers may dig up long-concealed secrets, unexpected documents may surface, and judges may reject his arguments.
Still, it’s far from certain that Trump will ever testify in the Zervos case. He could appeal the question of whether a state court judge can compel a president’s testimony. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Clinton had to testify in Jones’s federal case but didn’t take up the question of a state proceeding.
Or, Trump could settle the matter rather than testifying, said Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, who advised Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal.
“If he maintains the posture and testifies falsely under oath that he never had sexual relations with these women, who knows what hotel bill they’ll come up with?” Dershowitz said. “We’ll see the functional equivalent of the stained blue dress worn by Monica Lewinsky. I don’t think he’ll ever testify.”
Cooper conducted the “60 Minutes” interview with Clifford that aired on Sunday and the CNN interview with McDougal three days earlier. Clifford told him that she had sex with Trump one time, at a golf tournament in 2006. After she told her story in 2011 to a publication related to In Touch magazine, she said, she was supposed to be paid $15,000.
But she wasn’t paid and the story didn’t run then because Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, threatened to sue, Cooper said on the “60 Minutes” segment. Clifford said she was threatened by an unidentified man in a Las Vegas parking lot.
“A guy walked up on me and said to me, ‘Leave Trump alone. Forget the story,’” she said. “And then he leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, ‘That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.’ And then he was gone.”
Clifford said she felt intimidated by Cohen before signing the non-disclosure agreement in exchange for $130,000 in 2016. When asked by Cooper if she still had “video images, still images, email messages and text messages,” she said: “I can’t answer that right now.”
In Touch published its 2011 interview with Clifford in January, including details of the alleged affair with Trump, after the Wall Street Journal revealed the $130,000 payment. Trump has denied the affair through spokesmen.
After the “60 Minutes” broadcast, Cohen attorney Brent Blakely sent a letter to Clifford attorney Michael Avenatti demanding that Avenatti and Clifford “cease and desist from making any further false and defamatory statements about my client” and that they apologize to Cohen. Blakely said that Cohen had “absolutely nothing whatsoever to do” with the alleged threat to Clifford and her daughter.
McDougal, the former Playboy model, told Cooper in her March 22 interview on CNN that her sexual relationship with Trump began in the summer of 2006, several months after his wife Melania gave birth to their son.
The McDougal interview came despite her signing a contract during the 2016 presidential campaign with American Media Inc., owner of the National Enquirer, to sell the rights to her story for $150,000. American Media’s chairman, David Pecker, is a friend of Trump. She sued last week to get out of that contract, saying she signed it under false pretenses.
In her lawsuit, she claims Cohen worked secretly with her former attorney, Keith Davidson, and American Media to silence and intimidate her. Davidson has declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege.
Clifford said Cohen paid her the $130,000 to keep silent about her story. She sued Trump to void the confidentiality agreement, saying it wasn’t valid because Trump didn’t sign it.
Cohen’s lawyer, David Schwartz, has hit back in media appearances, saying she violated a valid contract and may owe $20 million in damages for her breaches.
The more immediate prospect of sworn testimony from Trump comes not from any civil matters, but from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election and Trump’s possible obstruction of justice. Trump’s lawyers have already spent months negotiating with Mueller’s team about whether they will agree to such questioning.
For Trump and his lawyers, there’s a risk that his private sexual life could bleed into Mueller’s criminal investigation. If the president does speak with prosecutors, his legal team will work hard to bar them from asking about sexual conduct, said Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney in Miami.
“The key concern for the Trump legal team is, will the president be asked about these issues by the Mueller team, or can they reach an agreement to exclude these subjects,” Coffey said. “These issues don’t seem related to Russia, but at times prosecutors take a very broad view of what’s relevant.”
Scheindlin, the retired judge, said that given Trump’s credibility problems, his lawyers have a basic concern in shielding him. “This man doesn’t take the truth too seriously, which is why his lawyers don’t want him to testify or even be interviewed by the special counsel,” she said.
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