This post contains descriptions of sexual assault.
Summer Zervos, one of the multiple women who accused President Donald Trump of unwanted sexual advances, announced during a press conference on Jan. 17 that she is suing him for defamation in the wake of his broad dismissal of sexual assault allegations against him. The lawsuit, filed three days before Trump’s inauguration, is a reminder of the high stakes women face under a Trump administration—one that, as it is shaping up, would have little regard for the severity of the sexual assault epidemic in the U.S.
A one-time contestant on Trump’s reality television show The Apprentice, Zervos alleged that Trump had made multiple false statements aimed at her and other women accusers in response to their claims of sexual misconduct against him last October. Zervos originally came forward after the controversial Access Hollywood tapes of Trump and host Billy Bush were made public, in which Trump boasted that his celebrity cleared him to “just start kissing [women]” and to “grab them by the p*ssy.”
“Ms. Zervos was ambushed by Mr. Trump on more than one occasion,” the original complaint states. “Mr. Trump suddenly, and without her consent, kissed her on her mouth repeatedly; he touched her breast; and he pressed his genitals up against her. Ms. Zervos never consented to any of this disgusting touching.” The alleged incident took place at a 2007 business meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
Trump rejected her claims, dismissing them as “false and ridiculous” and vehemently denied that he had ever met her at a hotel or groped her. “That is not who I am as a person, and it is not how I’ve conducted my life,” his statement said. Hours after Zervos came forward, Trump told a crowd at a rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, that it was “not hard to find a small handful of people willing to make false smears for personal fame” or for financial or political gains, according to the recently filed defamation lawsuit.
The suit alleges that the president knew his statements about Zervos and the other accusers were untrue, and were made knowing that they could subject these women to “threats of violence, economic harm, and reputational damage.”
“Mr. Trump’s false, defamatory statements about Ms. Zervos – that, among other things, she made up her descriptions of Mr. Trump’s misconduct as a hoax, and that she is creating a ‘phony’ story just so that she can be famous — have been deeply detrimental to Ms. Zervos’ reputation, honor and dignity,” the lawsuit stated.
Renowned civil rights attorney Gloria Allred said during the press conference that Zervos wants a full retraction of Trump’s comments about her and for him to admit the claims made against him are true. Zervos said she would drop her lawsuit without seeking monetary damages if Trump complied with these demands. Allred also said that Zervos’ claims against Trump had passed a lie detector test.
“Since Mr. Trump has not issued a retraction as I requested,” Zervos said, “he has therefore left me with no alternative other than to sue him in order to vindicate my reputation.”
Allred represents three other women who accused Trump of sexual assault. They are former Miss Utah Temple Taggart, adult film actress Jessica Drake, and former Trump Tower receptionist Rachel Crooks. Zervos’ case, should it move forward, could provide reason to further explore the other allegations.
Several days later on Jan. 21, the morning of the Women’s March, Allred appeared with all four women at a hotel news conference in downtown Washington, D.C. to say that they would be participating in the day’s demonstration. She explained that her clients had come to D.C to issue a call of solidarity with other victims of sexual abuse, and to confirm that they will not back down, even with Trump in office. “All of these women are someone’s daughter,” Allred said. “Now more than ever, it is time to be brave and time to speak truth to power.
Now, days after the Women’s March and in the midst of an eruption of public outcry, Senator Jeff Sessions, a man criticized for his civil rights record and his support of the recently ordered travel ban, has been approved by committee to serve as Attorney General. He has yet to be confirmed by a full Senate vote, and organizations are encouraging their members to call their Senators to stop his confirmation. Sessions—along with Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, and Steve Mnuchin, his pick for Treasury Secretary, have faced the most opposition from Senate Democrats during the process of approving Trump’s cabinet.
When asked about the Access Hollywood tapes that originally prompted Zervos and others to come forward in October, Sessions said that to consider Trump’s behavior sexual assault in the video would be “a stretch.” In 2013, Sessions also voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), a landmark 1994 law that serves victims of domestic and sexual violence. VAWA’s renewal expanded its protections to indigenous lands, college students, and LGBTQ+ individuals. Sessions told Senator Patrick Leahy during his confirmation hearing on Jan. 10 that he “would defend the statute if it was reasonably defensible.”
“I asked Senator Sessions to commit to stand up for women and preserve these critical programs,” Leahy said during yesterday’s markup hearing. “Again, he refused.” Diverging from his prepared remarks, Leahy described a time when VAWA did not exist. “I still have nightmares about some of the crime scenes I went to,” said Leahy, a former prosecutor. “How could anybody who is going to be in a position to enforce our laws turn their back on that? Or suggest the law should only apply to certain classes of women?”
Although the campaign is over, the accusations against President Trump, coupled with the dangerous legislators that support him, have harmful ramifications and should be taken seriously. The current political climate surrounding these issues demands it.