The Constitution and the Supreme Court both say a president is largely immune from civil lawsuits. The chief executive does critical work leading the nation, the logic goes, and shouldn't be bedeviled by ordinary civil lawsuits.
That's the argument that President Bill Clinton used almost exactly 20 years ago, when he tried but failed to stop the sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Jones. Now it's being made by lawyers for President Trump, against a sexual harassment suit brought by Summer Zervos, a former contestant on Trump's TV show The Apprentice.
Zervos alleges that Trump kissed her and engaged in "disgusting touching" in 2007. She accused him publicly during the presidential campaign last fall; he counterattacked on Twitter. Her lawsuit landed a few days before he was inaugurated in January.
The Trump legal team — private lawyers, not government employees — now says in a court filing that the immunity question should be settled immediately. This approach could let them avoid wrangling over the allegations made by Zervos.
The immunity question they raise is one laid out by the Supreme Court in the Paula Jones case: whether a lawsuit in state court (like Zervos') has less clout than a federal case (like Jones') when it comes to challenging presidential immunity. Trump's lawyers say that's so, and they want the Zervos case dismissed, at least until after he leaves office.
In 1997, the Supreme Court rejected Clinton's claim that the Jones case would harm his ability to fulfill the president's duties. But it's the case that led to Clinton's impeachment by the House of Representatives in 1998.