Trump Urges Court to Halt Former ‘Apprentice’ Contestant’s Defamation Suit

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump’s lawyer asked a New York appeals court to put an end to a defamation lawsuit by a former “Apprentice” contestant who claims the mogul groped and kissed her without permission in 2007.

Summer Zervos’s alleges that Trump defamed her by calling her story "phony," but the U.S. Constitution grants immunity to sitting presidents from lawsuits in state courts, Trump’s lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, said Thursday at a hearing in Manhattan.

"This is a case brought by a plaintiff to make a political statement" and Trump’s reaction was "purely political speech," Kasowitz said. In a civil lawsuit against a sitting president, "state courts have no power and no authority under the Constitution," he said.

Mariann Wang, Zervos’s lawyer, said the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution cited by Kasowitz doesn’t shield Trump, and that he’s simply trying to dodge a landmark U.S. Supreme Court finding that sitting presidents aren’t immune from litigation. That case, in which then-President Bill Clinton was accused of sexual harassment, was filed in federal court.

"The president does not stand above the law," Wang said at the hearing. "He is still a human being."

The panel of judges peppered both lawyers with questions for about 30 minutes, asking Kasowitz how a defamation lawsuit could possibly interfere with the president’s duties and asking Wang if a state court had authority to order a president’s arrest if he or she were in contempt of court. Wang said she didn’t think it would ever come to that.

Zervos spoke to reporters after the hearing and made a plea for financial help to pay her lawyer.

Judge’s Ruling

Trump seeks to overturn a March ruling by a trial court judge who said sitting presidents "aren’t above the law." If Trump’s appeal fails, he’ll face the prospect of a drawn-out fight over Zervos’s demands for evidence tied to other assault allegations against him and possibly a trial.

The president’s appeal is being weighed just days after he won a separate defamation suit in California filed by the adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who claims she had a consensual tryst with Trump over a decade ago. The president had accused Daniels on Twitter of putting on “a total con job” with a claim that she was threatened if she talked about Trump. A federal court judge held that Trump’s tweet was protected by the First Amendment.

Zervos, a contender on the Apprentice in 2005, went public with her claims just before the 2016 election, alleging Trump “ambushed” her on more than one occasion starting in 2007, kissing her, touching her breast and pressing his genitals against her. Zervos has said she decided to come forward only after Trump "publicly lied" about his behavior with other women.

Trump has repeatedly denied allegations of sexual harassment and claims Zervos’s lawsuit is politically motivated. Calling Zervos and other accusers liars, Trump has argued, is “political speech in the context of a public debate,” which is protected by the First Amendment.

The former contestant has requested outtakes from the show and records from a Beverly Hills hotel about Trump’s stay -- as well as a possible deposition of Trump. She has also asked for any documents from the presidential campaign about other women who claimed Trump harassed them.

Trump "carefully calculated his defamatory attacks," saying in more than a dozen statements in October 2016 that Zervos “lied,” that she “fabricated” and “made up” the “phony” stories, and that she’d done so to gain fame, her lawyer said in a brief filed before the hearing.

Zervos is one of at least 19 women who have come forward accusing him of sexual misconduct.

The case is Zervos v. Trump, 150522/2017, New York Supreme Court, New York County.

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