By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Adult film actress Stormy Daniels on Monday sued U.S. President Donald Trump for defamation, saying he lied by tweeting that her claim of being threatened if she discussed an alleged sexual encounter with him was a “total con job.”
The lawsuit in federal court in Manhattan escalates Daniels’ litigation with Trump and his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, who paid her $130,000 before the 2016 U.S. presidential election not to talk about the alleged sexual encounter a decade earlier.
Neither Trump’s lawyers nor the White House immediately responded to requests for comment. Cohen was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit, which seeks compensatory and punitive damages, but faces a separate defamation lawsuit by Daniels.
Trump used Twitter on April 18 to complain about a composite sketch that Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti had released the previous day.
That sketch depicted a man Daniels said assailed her in a Las Vegas parking lot soon after she had agreed in May 2011 to work with In Touch magazine on a story about her relationship with Trump.
“A sketch years later about a nonexistent man,” Trump wrote. “A total con job, playing the Fake News Media for Fools (but they know it)!”
In her complaint, Daniels said the assailant had urged her to “leave Trump alone” and “forget the story,” and after looking at her infant daughter said: “That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.”
Daniels said the president knew his tweet was false or made it with reckless disregard for its truth, and falsely accused her of making up the assailant.
“By calling the incident a ‘con job’ Mr. Trump’s statement would be understood to state that Ms. Clifford was fabricating the crime and the existence of the assailant, both of which are prohibited under New York law,” Daniels said in her complaint.
Trump presently has 51.4 million Twitter followers.
NOT TRUMP’S FIRST DEFAMATION CASE
A Los Angeles judge on Friday put Daniels’ lawsuit there against Cohen and Trump to end her non-disclosure agreement on hold for 90 days.
The judge cited the reasonably high likelihood that letting the case continue might threaten Cohen’s constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Cohen faces a criminal probe into his business affairs by federal prosecutors in Manhattan, including over the $130,000 payment, which he has called legal.
The Los Angeles case also includes Daniels’ claim that Cohen defamed her in a Feb. 13 statement by implying she had lied about her relationship with Trump.
“Just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean that it can’t cause you harm or damage. I will always protect Mr. Trump,” Cohen had said.
Daniels sued Trump as an individual, not in his capacity as president, which could pose problems for any defense.
“He’ll have to litigate unless he can get a court to agree he has a privilege not to while he’s president,” said Stephen Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania law professor.
Burbank co-wrote an earlier brief arguing that then-President Bill Clinton was not immune in federal court from private civil lawsuits during his presidency for unofficial acts. The Supreme Court adopted that view in 1997.
Daniels’ defamation case is also not the president’s first.
Trump is appealing a March 20 decision by a New York state judge in Manhattan that allowed Summer Zervos, a contestant on his former TV show “The Apprentice,” to pursue her own defamation case.
Zervos had accused Trump of kissing her against her will and groping her at a meeting about a possible job, and that he defamed her by calling such allegations lies.
Trump has argued that he was immune from that lawsuit.
Daniels has offered a $100,000 reward for information about the man in the sketch.
The case is Clifford v Trump, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 18-03842.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld; editing by G Crosse, Noeleen Walder, and Jonathan Oatis)