TAMPA, Fla. (CN) – Attorneys for President Donald Trump argued before a federal judge Wednesday for the dismissal of a lawsuit from a former campaign staffer claiming Trump forcibly kissed her before a 2016 rally in Florida.
Alva Johnson, a black 43-year-old event planner from Alabama, made the accusation as part of a larger class action brought in Tampa federal court which also claims the Trump campaign paid female and African-American staffers less than their white male counterparts.
In Wednesday’s hearing before U.S. District Judge William Jung, Trump’s attorneys argued the suit, which includes allegations from several other women throughout the president’s public life, is politically motivated.
“These allegations are designed to impugn the integrity or reputation of the defense,” said Trump’s lead counsel, Charles Harder of Harder LLP. “It’s a political case, it’s a political agenda.”
Trump’s attorneys asked the judge to throw out the accusations from other women and some of the president’s own remarks, including his lewd comments captured in the infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” videotape.
“The plaintiff is trying to take advantage of allegations from 12 to 37 years ago,” Harder said. “Her lawyers are trying to turn this case into 19 other cases.”
Johnson’s attorney, Hassan Zavareei, explained the allegations are critical to showing Trump has a habit of touching women without consent, and the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape was the catalyst that convinced Johnson to quit the campaign and pursue legal action.
“That’s when she realized what had happened to her,” Zavareei told the judge.
Zavareei argued Trump’s attorneys were attempting to limit discovery, and a deposition of the president himself, by striking sections of the complaint. The motion to dismiss, he said, was premature.
In addition to a battery claim for the alleged kiss, Johnson also accuses the campaign of paying her thousands less a month than white employees in similar or lower positions. In addition, she says, her direct supervisor repeatedly made racist and sexist remarks about other staff members and volunteers.
Another attorney for Trump, Tracey Jaensch of Tampa-based Ford & Harrison, argued the equal pay and race discrimination claims do not hold up, because the other campaign workers named in the complaint – from a teenager to the assistant of the campaign’s communications director — did wildly different jobs.
“These people are clearly not performing comparable work,” she said.
Johnson joined the campaign in 2015 as the director of outreach and coalitions for Alabama. She later became part of the campaign’s “national strike team” that dropped into important states to quickly organize volunteers and events. Johnson was named operations administrative director for Florida in the last months of the campaign.
She claims she was working in that role when, inside an RV before an August 2016 rally in Tampa, Trump grabbed her hand and leaned in “close enough that she could feel his breath on her skin” for a kiss on the mouth. She turned her head and Trump landed the kiss on the corner of her mouth, according to the lawsuit.
“Ms. Johnson was wearing a baseball cap with the bill facing forward. Given her baseball cap, defendant Trump’s kiss on Ms. Johnson’s mouth was deliberate and required intention,” the complaint states. “Immediately afterwards, the Secret Service ushered defendant Trump away, off the RV. Ms. Johnson stayed in the RV, in shock about what had just transpired. She felt confused and humiliated.”
Johnson quit the campaign less than two months later before the November 2016 election.
Trump has yet to comment publicly on the lawsuit.
At the end of the hearing, the judge hinted Johnson’s battery claim could be difficult to dismiss outright.
“That’s not going anywhere,” Jung said. “She is entitled to her day in court.”
Jung also acknowledged Trump’s attorneys would seek a protective order to prevent the president’s deposition and asked them to expedite the request.
After the hearing, when asked why Johnson decided to file a class action lawsuit instead of pursuing her grievances alone, Zavareei said the former staffer felt the need to defend others in her position.
“We think it’s an important principal to pay women equally, especially when working on a presidential campaign,” the attorney said.
Zavareei would not discuss his client’s whereabouts due to threats she’s received since filing the suit.
“It’s been challenging,” he said. “But she’s a strong woman.”
The judge plans to make a ruling in the next 10 days.