NEW YORK — Summer Zervos, a California restaurant owner who appeared as a contestant on “The Apprentice,” isn’t asking for much in her defamation lawsuit against President Donald Trump. She wants less than $3,000 and an apology for what she said were unwanted sexual advances.
But if the lawsuit continues, it could land Trump in the same cycle of depositions and document discovery that caused so much trouble for President Bill Clinton after he was sued by Paula Jones.
That would mean he would have to answer potentially embarrassing questions under oath about his relationships with women.
Trump’s attempts to get the lawsuit tossed out have failed so far, but the battle isn’t over yet.
Here’s a look at the case and where it could go from here:
WHAT IS THIS LAWSUIT ABOUT?
Near the end of the presidential race, Zervos and more than a dozen other women came forward to say Trump had sexually harassed or assaulted them.
Zervos, who appeared on “The Apprentice” in 2006, said that when she returned months later to inquire about a job, Trump groped and forcibly kissed her.
Trump said Zervos and his other accusers made up phony stories to get attention.
“Nothing ever happened with any of these women. Totally made up nonsense to steal the election,” Trump tweeted.
Zervos isn’t suing Trump for sexual harassment. The statute of limitations for that kind of lawsuit passed years ago. She’s suing Trump for calling her a liar, saying it harmed her reputation.
In the suit, Zervos has asked for an apology, a retraction of Trump’s denials, and at least $2,914 in compensation, though damages could ultimately be higher if a jury finds the president defamed her.
WHAT WOULD SHE HAVE TO PROVE TO WIN?
Zervos has to prove Trump lied about her to other people and that those lies caused real harm. Legal experts say that means she must show that Trump really did kiss and grope her against her will.
Proving that took place won’t be easy since the encounter allegedly took place in 2007 in Trump’s room at the Beverly Hills Hotel. But in trying to build a case, Zervos’ lawyers can request documents, videos, and emails in which Trump, his employees or aides might have discussed the incident.
They can also request that the president be questioned under oath, in which case he would be obligated to answer questions truthfully.
“The nature of that relationship, his behavior and his conduct … that’s all on the table,” said Alexander A. Reinert, a law professor and director of the Center for Rights and Justice at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
CAN TRUMP GET THE CASE THROWN OUT?
He’s trying. A New York judge on March 21 shot down an initial attempt to get the case dismissed.
Trump’s attorneys have said they will appeal. They say the case should at least be delayed until Trump is out of office.
They may face an uphill fight. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 1997, in the sexual harassment case filed by Paula Jones against then-President Bill Clinton, that presidents are not immune from civil litigation while in office.
That ruling forced Clinton to answer questions under oath for nearly six hours in 1998.
But Trump’s lawyers might have luck delaying the case through appeals and legal maneuvers. Jones’ lawsuit against Clinton was tied up in court for four years before he was finally forced to testify — after he had been re-elected.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF A DEPOSITION?
For Clinton, the Jones deposition was a disaster. Faced with embarrassing questions about adultery, he denied having a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern.
That denial was investigated by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who questioned Clinton before a federal grand jury. Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice by the U.S. House of Representatives, but was ultimately acquitted by the U.S. Senate.
Zervos’ attorney, Mariann Wang, now says she wants to get Trump to give a deposition, where she would get a chance to ask the same sorts of uncomfortable questions.
A lawyer for Stormy Daniels also wants to depose Trump in a legal dispute involving a $130,000 payment paid to the porn actress in exchange for her silence about a consensual extramarital affair.
“The president has the ability to avoid a crisis by, one, not being deposed, or, two, telling the truth,” said attorney Joseph Cammarata, who represented Jones in her lawsuit. “It poses a peril if you don’t tell truth. Even if you’re the one running the country.”
Even if Trump is truthful, there could still be political fallout.
“I think people are revisiting their thoughts on the subject of what’s right and what’s wrong with respect to claims of sexual assault,” Cammarata said.
Wang said in court that she could work around Trump’s busy schedule and would agree to videotaped depositions.
“We can take a deposition down to Mar-a-Lago in between him going to play golf,” she said, a jab at Trump’s frequent visits to his Florida resort.