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Trump may face perils of a defamation lawsuit tied to sexual harassment allegations

Sexual harassment allegations against President Trump were back in court in New York on Tuesday. Summer Zervos, one of at least 11 women who came forward during the 2016 election campaign to accuse Trump, is now suing the president for defamation. Judy Woodruff learns more from Karen Tumulty of The Washington Post about that lawsuit and the resignation of Rep. John Conyers.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to the latest on allegations of sexual misconduct aimed at politicians, those running for and elected to public office.

    The day's headlines begin with Congressman John Conyers' decision to step down.

    He's calling it a retirement, not a resignation; 88-year-old John Conyers announced it this morning on a radio show from his hospital bed in Detroit.

  • Rep. John Conyers:

    I am retiring today. My legacy can't be compromised or diminished in any way by what we're going through now. This, too, shall pass.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    First elected in 1964, the Michigan Democrat is the longest serving member currently in Congress. Now he faces multiple allegations that he sexually harassed female aides over the years.

    One accuser, Marion Brown, said she was fired in 2014 for refusing Conyers' advances. She received a financial settlement.

  • Marion Brown:

    It was sexual harassment, violating — violating my body, propositioning me, inviting me to hotels with the guise of discussing business, and then propositioning to — for sex.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Another woman, Elisa Grubbs, says she witnessed Conyers touching Brown's legs and buttocks. Grubbs also says that Conyers slid his hand up her skirt in church.

    Meanwhile, a former communications director for Texas Republican Congressman Blake Farenthold says she faced a backlash after suing him for sexual harassment in 2014.

  • Lauren Greene:

    I was told that if I pursued with this, my career on Capitol Hill would be over. And that was all I knew.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lauren Greene ultimately settled for $84,000, but she says she's been unable since then to land a full-time job.

    On the Senate side, Alabama Republican Roy Moore is still running in a special election next week. He's denied accusations by various women of preying on them when they were teenagers. Today, the Republican National Committee has resumed its financial backing for Moore, three weeks after severing all ties.

    Top Senate Republicans have also dialed back their calls for Moore to quit the race.

    Majority Leader Mitch McConnell-

  • Sen. Mitch McConnell:

    There's been no change of heart. I had hoped earlier that he would withdraw as a candidate. That obviously is not going to happen. If he were to be elected, he would immediately have an Ethics Committee case and the committee would take a look at the situation and give us advice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    For his part, President Trump gave Moore a full endorsement on Monday. He repeated his support at a luncheon today with Republican leaders.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We don't want to have a liberal Democrat in Alabama, believe me. We want strong borders. We want stopping crime. We want to have the things that we represent.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Allegations about the president's own behavior were back in a state court today in New York. Summer Zervos is one of at least 11 women who came forward during last year's election campaign to accuse Mr. Trump of sexual harassment.

    He said the women were lying, and Zervos sued him for defamation. The president's lawyers say that, under the Constitution, he cannot be sued in state court while he's still in office.

    And joining me now to discuss the lawsuit filed against President Trump and some of the broader questions here is Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for The Washington Post.

    Karen, thank you for coming back on the program.

    As we just said, 11 some women made allegations against the president. He said in the campaign they were all lying, total fabrication. In fact, he said he was going to sue them once he was elected. He has not done that, but now this one woman is suing him.

    Tell us. Remind us, who is she and what is the suit?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    She was briefly a contestant on his show "The Apprentice," and she alleges that a decade ago, on two separate occasions, he basically forced himself on her, kissing her on one, thrusting his pelvis into her on another.

    He has said that she was lying. So she is taking him to court, not on the act of sexual assault, which is what this would be, but on defamation, on standing up in public and saying that she was a liar.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And what are his lawyers saying back?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    His lawyers are saying a couple of things.

    One is that — everybody looks at the precedent of Bill Clinton in the 1990s, when Paula Jones sued him for sexual harassment. It was allowed to go forward. He was allowed to be sued while he was president of the United States.

    President Trump's lawyers are arguing two things. They are arguing, first of all, that that suit was in federal court, that there are different standards in state court, and that, ironically, paradoxically enough, they are pointing to Bill Clinton's experience and saying that that lawsuit, which was allowed to go forward, which took years, which the United States Supreme Court unanimously allowed to go forward, really took a lot of the president's time away from his job.

    It was a big distraction, which, of course, was what Bill Clinton had argued it was going to be, and lost.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, there are two different arguments they are making. How much does it matter? What are the consequences if this case goes forward, if they allow it to go forward?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Well, one thing is, it is going to go on for a very long time, because whichever side wins, you can assume they're going to keep appealing.

    Ultimately, the question would become, would President Trump be forced to be deposed in this? Don't forget, when Bill Clinton got impeached, it was over lying in the deposition in the Paula Jones case.

    And then, second of all, the question would be, what else could they go after in discovery? Could they bring in these other women who made these accusations? Could they bring in unshown footage from "The Apprentice"?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it's — you're reminding us that there was the suit against President Clinton. There was a settlement ultimately, what, 850…

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Eight hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

  • Judy Woodruff:


  • Karen Tumulty:

    But he never admitted guilt, but he did make an $850,000 settlement.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a reminder — we don't know what's going to happen in this case against President Trump.

    You have been talking, though, Karen, to some of the other women who have made allegations against the president. What are they saying and why aren't they also coming forward?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    I'm finding a couple different reactions.

    There are some women who want to just sort of go back the their regular lives. They have businesses. They have families. President Trump was suggesting that these women were doing this for the publicity.

    This is not a pleasant experience for these women. But the second reaction I'm getting from other women is a lot of anger and frustration, because they see these accusations being brought up in other settings, whether it's Harvey Weinstein or whether, you know, it's Matt Lauer, and it becomes fatal.

    These guys are gone almost immediately. And yet they say every day they look up and there is Donald Trump on their television.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which is a reminder that the political environment is a very different one from the private sector, or the — well, the public sector, people work in business or work for private employers.

    But — and I hear women asking today, can an accusation against a man who is in public office ever be satisfied? We have seen some of the — we have seen John Conyers today finally announce that he is stepping down, but there are so many other accusations out there, the — Senator Franken and others, that are still up in the air and unresolved.

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Because of the tribal nature in our politics — and we are seeing down in Alabama it does appear that tribal loyalties trump everything.

    It does appear that, in reality, the only real due process for these kinds of allegations in politics comes at the ballot box. And it was when Nancy Pelosi and the other House leaders decided that John Conyers was going to be a liability for them politically after, you know, sort of a false start where she was calling him an icon. Then all of a sudden, they turn and they say, no, this guy has to be out of here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there a pattern to how voters have seen these cases over time?

  • Karen Tumulty:

    The pattern would suggest that if you — the pattern, the two cases that we have seen in the past year would suggest that, if you stand up and deny it, and then stoke your base, that that is actually in the current environment a successful formula.

    We saw it work for Donald Trump, and it appears to thus far have worked for Roy Moore in Alabama. He's — despite the wishes and urgings of practically the entire Republican establishment, he is still in this race and he could very well win.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he could very well win, and especially now with the reversal of the Republican National Committee and other Republicans.

    Karen Tumulty reporting on this story for The Washington Post, thank you very much.

  • Karen Tumulty:

    Great to be here.

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