NEW YORK – Can the US president be sued for defamation?
A New York judge began hearing arguments on the issue Tuesday and must decide whether Summer Zervos, who accused President Donald Trump of sexual harassment, can pursue the case in civil court.
Trump is asking for the case to be dismissed. Zervos was a candidate on the TV reality show The Apprentice, which Trump hosted from 2004 to 2015.
During his campaign for president last October, Zervos alleged that Trump had made unwanted sexual advances toward her when she met him at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles in 2007 to discuss career opportunities. She alleged Trump moved toward her aggressively during the encounter and touched her on the breast but she rebuffed him. Zervos filed suit in January, three days before Trump's inauguration.
Trump is a "liar and misogynist" who has "debased and denigrated Zervos with false statements about her," the lawsuit alleges.
"All I can say is it's totally fake news. It's fake and made-up stuff and it's disgraceful what happens, but that happens in the world of politics," Trump responded in October, after his campaign was subpoenaed as part of Zervos's lawsuit.
On Tuesday, Judge Jennifer Schecter heard arguments from Marc Kasowitz, one of the lawyers for the billionaire president, who is seeking dismissal of the case. Kasowitz invoked a clause of the United States constitution, saying the states "can't exercise any control over the president."
He also referred to the sexual harassment lawsuit made by Paula Jones against then-president Bill Clinton in 1994. According to Kasowitz, that case enshrined federal supremacy over state jurisdiction. A federal judge dismissed Jones' lawsuit but Clinton later reached an out-of-court settlement with her.
Kasowitz further argued that the person cannot be separated from the function of president, and this prevents him from being present at judicial hearings and an eventual trial.
"The president is the person who's heading the executive branch and should be available 24/7," Trump's lawyer argued.
Representing Zervos, Mariann Meier Wang countered that proceedings could in fact be handled in a way that need "not impede in any way the president's duties." Wang argued that the Paula Jones case showed simply that a president could be judged by a civil court on facts occurring prior to his mandate, as is the case with Trump.
Judge Schecter did not indicate when she will render her decision on whether the Zervos case can proceed. Zervos and several other women who made similar allegations came forward during the presidential campaign after a 2005 videotape surfaced of Trump bragging about groping women.
At the time of the tape's release, Trump dismissed the comments as "just words" and "locker room talk," and denied the allegations while threatening to sue his accusers after the election.
More recently, as a flurry of sexual assault allegations shake high-profile men in the US entertainment, media and political worlds, The New York Times and The Washington Post reported that Trump had told supporters and at least one senator that the 2005 tape may have been faked, and that the voice was not his.