Is the President Immune From Defamation Lawsuits?

Before he was President Donald Trump, he was host of the reality TV series “The Apprentice” Donald Trump. But his actions then may come back to legally haunt him now.

Summer Zervos, a former “Apprentice” contestant, is suing the president, claiming his denials of her sexual harassment claims amounted to defamation. But Trump’s attorneys are planning to argue that the president is immune from this and other civil lawsuits while he remains in office. Is that argument going to work?

Defamatory Statements

Zervos appeared on Trump’s TV show in 2006, and was seeking a job with the Trump Organization when the president allegedly groped her breast and began to kiss her aggressively against her will. Trump denied the allegations, calling them a “total fabrication” and a “hoax,” while calling Zervos a “phony” and labeling other women making similar claims of sexual harassment “liars.”

Zervos then sued in New York state court, claiming Trump’s attack caused her emotional distress and lost business, and that Trump knew his denials of her allegations were defamatory, because he knew the truth of their interactions and “engaged regularly in this kind of unwanted sexual touching for years, and that was, in fact, how he treated women routinely and how he lived his life.”

Defamation, legally speaking, refers to any false statement that hurts someone’s reputation. In order to win a defamation lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that someone made a statement, the statement was published, the statement caused an injury, the statement was false, and the statement did not fall into a privileged category.

Presidential Immunity

Bill Clinton attempted to mount the same immunity defense when he was sued by Paula Jones for sexual harassment. Back then, the Supreme Court ruled that litigation against a sitting president can proceed if it is over conduct unrelated to his public office. While conceding that point generally, Trump’s attorneys are asking for deference in scheduling and for the court to stay the lawsuit until after Trump’s presidency.

Trump attorney Marc Kasowitz also wrote:

“Defendant Donald J. Trump, the President of the United States, intends to file a motion to dismiss this action on the ground, among others, that the United States Constitution, including the Supremacy Clause contained therein, immunizes the President from being sued in state court while in office.”

As the Washington Post points out, this issue of presidential immunity in state courts remains unresolved, as the Paula Jones case involved federal sexual harassment claims. So while the president might not be immune to defamation claims, those claims may need to be filed in federal court.

In an interesting twist to the case against Trump, one of the lawyers who successfully argued against Clinton’s immunity was George T. Conway III, husband of Trump aide Kellyanne Conway and nominated by Trump to lead the Justice Department’s civil division.

Related Resources: