Summer Zervos’s story about Trump starts around the same time as McDougal’s. In December 2007, she says, she sought a meeting with Trump, hoping he could help her in her career. At the meeting, she says, he kissed her twice without asking; at a second meeting, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, she says he grabbed her breasts and pressed his genitals against her.
Zervos began speaking about her experiences publicly in October 2016, after she heard Trump talking about grabbing women “by the pussy” on the Access Hollywood tape. Trump pushed back, saying, “every woman lied when they came forward to hurt my campaign,” and of Zervos specifically, “I never met her at a hotel or greeted her inappropriately a decade ago.” So in January 2017, Zervos sued for defamation — her suit argues that Trump’s comments about her “have been deeply detrimental to Ms. Zervos’s reputation, honor and dignity.”
Trump’s lawyers have been trying to get the case dismissed. The Supreme Court decided in Clinton v. Jones, Paula Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit against Bill Clinton, that the president can be sued in federal court for “unofficial acts” — that is, actions committed outside his or her official capacity as president. Trump’s lawyers argued, however, that the president could not be sued for such acts in state court. On Tuesday, a judge rejected that argument, allowing Zervos’s case to go forward.
That means Trump’s team might have to reveal campaign communications not just about Zervos, but about any woman who has accused Trump of sexual misconduct — including women who may not have gone public yet. Of course, Trump’s lawyers will probably fight the subpoena — but on Tuesday, they lost an important battle in their effort to keep the case out of the public eye.
Accounts from McDougal and others over the past few months have suggested a complex edifice built up around Trump — maintained by friends and lawyers, composed of money and nondisclosure agreements, and intended to protect Trump from having to face the consequences of women speaking publicly about their experiences. Tuesday’s legal developments are the latest sign that, piece by piece, that edifice might be coming down.
Just to preempt the inevitable response of “Trump’s base won’t care about anything revealed in these lawsuits,” this is both 1)true and 2)beside the point. Elections are decided at the margin, and Trump’s base isn’t enough to win national elections. If revelations about Trump’s misconduct causes more white suburbanites to exit the Republican coalition…well, you can see the results over the last year.
Also, this is more relevant to Russia revelations, but another stock response to any Trump scandal is “this won’t take him down.” Well, yes. Trump is, barring some finding far outside of the plausible scope of what might be found out now, not going to be removed from office by impeachment or other constitutional devices. But Trump can be removed from office by election, and the relevance of scandals is that they make this more likely. It’s not going to be easy for the Republicans to get Trump portrayed as the more honest candidate in 2020, with the Clinton rules no longer in effect and the media not treating the Democratic candidate as the president-elect.