Nearly eight years ago, convinced that she’d been treated unfairly, Jessica Denson sued Donald Trump’s campaign for workplace harassment.

Then she discovered the lengths Trump’s attorneys would go to hit back — and their unwillingness to stop.

Immediately, the campaign filed a counterclaim for $1.5 million. It won a $52,229 judgment, and the campaign froze her bank account and almost forced her into bankruptcy.

She found it humiliating when the campaign lawyers branded her a “judgment debtor” in a subpoena. They monitored her Twitter account, which had 32 followers, and submitted hundreds of pages of printouts to a judge. They even deposed her mother, grilling her about the family’s religious practices.

The judgment was ultimately thrown out by an appeals court, but her legal fight continues.

The process has been “unbearable,” Denson said, describing the unrelenting pressure she felt from Trump campaign attorneys. “This had become my life. I had no income and had this lien against me. It crippled my ability to work.”

The legal resources deployed to try to crush Denson’s case are not unusual. At least four women of color involved in the 2016 operation have been embroiled in legal fights with the campaign over workplace harassment, discrimination or violations of nondisclosure agreements. They have been subjected to scorched-earth tactics. For years, the Trump campaign has persisted, despite losing consistently, in at least some cases after it was clear that its efforts had damaged the women.

Trump was regularly updated on the women’s cases, according to two people familiar with the matters. In one, he wanted to escalate the dispute by filing a federal defamation lawsuit against the former employee, but his lawyers persuaded him it was best handled through confidential arbitration. Campaign lawyers urged him to settle the ongoing “legacy lawsuits” from 2016 before the 2020 election, but he declined.

Now as Trump engages in another presidential run, a judge’s order in one of those cases may force into public view the new details about staffers who lodged similar accusations. A federal magistrate judge has ordered the campaign to produce by May 31 a list of all discrimination and harassment complaints made during Trump’s 2016 and 2020 presidential runs, allegations that the campaign initially tried to keep confidential through rigorously enforced NDAs. Last year, a federal judge freed 422 employees of the 2016 campaign from confidentiality agreements in a class-action lawsuit brought by Denson, a major crack in the campaign’s strategy.

As the media has chronicled, Trump is a well-known bully. He has belittled and sought to dominate political rivals like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former allies like Bill Barr, who was his attorney general. Trump and his surrogates have appeared to relish hounding or humiliating women who have verbally crossed him, including media and Hollywood stars and a long list of accusers who have complained over the years about sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct. (He has denied all of the allegations.)

But ProPublica found that Trump’s campaign used similar bullying tactics against its own workers. These fights have been waged out of the public eye against women with few resources to stand up against the campaign’s battery of lawyers, paid from a seemingly bottomless trove of campaign money.

The campaign is “still litigating these ridiculous cases that should have been settled” long ago, said campaign finance authority Brett Kappel of Harmon Curran, who has been tracking Trump’s civil and criminal cases. Trump’s strategy is the same one he’s used in other lawsuits: “Drag it out and make it as painful and expensive as possible for the opponent, and maybe they’ll go away,” he said.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a detailed list of questions. Spokesperson Steven Cheung in an emailed statement said one of the cases filed by a former campaign worker was “an absurd and fake story.”

Supporters are giving him money earned with “blood, sweat and tears,” Denson said. “And it is being turned around to terrorize people.”

As is being revealed now in the Stormy Daniels case, Trump’s chaotic 2016 campaign was governed by one overriding public relations strategy: Lock down any whiff of scandal that could be unflattering or compromising to the candidate.

Trump’s campaign used a trio of tools, borrowed largely from the Trump Organization, to ensure that. Allegations were met with swift denials. Employees were bound to silence by onerous NDAs that imposed a lifetime ban on disparaging Trump, his extended family or any of his companies. And the campaign’s lawyers brought in a phalanx of Trump-savvy outside lawyers prepared to crush.

How much the campaign has poured into such efforts is unclear, but it is likely millions, according to spending reports. Trump’s bills for all his many legal challenges — workplace harassment claims aren’t broken out — have topped $100 million.

Trump’s use of donor money to fight lawsuits against the campaign is legal, but experts say he has pushed the limits of laws that forbid using campaign contributions for legal matters that have nothing to do with running for office.

The campaign faced its first-known discrimination complaint in January 2016 when Iowa field organizer Elizabeth Davidson filed a case with a local civil rights agency claiming she had been underpaid because she was a woman. The law student had been fired and accused of violating her NDA by making “disparaging comments” to the press, according to the complaint. Davidson dropped her case without explanation in 2018. She did not return phone calls.

The Trump campaign brought out heavy artillery to try to discredit another female employee who filed a federal lawsuit in February 2019. Alva Johnson, a field operations director from Alabama, alleged pay disparities and a hostile workplace in 2016, but her most explosive allegation was that Trump engaged in “sexually predatory conduct” by kissing her without permission during a Florida campaign event.

To handle her case, the campaign hired attorney Charles Harder, best known for winning a privacy case in 2016 that financially destroyed the gossip website Gawker. Harder’s firm was paid $4.3 million for legal work on a number of campaign cases between 2018 and 2021, according to spending reports. Trump was then in the White House, and spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders called Johnson’s accusation “absurd.”

Harder produced a video filmed by an unnamed supporter. It showed Trump kissing Johnson near her mouth as he approached her for the first time in a reception line. Harder argued the video showed the kiss was not forced; Johnson’s lawyers argued it proved the kiss was real and unwelcome.

A Trump-appointed judge threw out Johnson’s case in 2019, calling the kissing allegation a political attack, and gave her a chance to refile a complaint focused only on alleged pay disparities. She said recently in an interview she chose not to do so, largely because she was frightened for herself and her family as Trump supporters rallied to the president’s defense.

“I definitely heard about every possible way I could die,” she said. “We lived in a cul-de-sac, and they would just drive around with their Trump flags.”

Harder subpoenaed Johnson’s bank statements, extensive news media contacts and communications with potential employers. At one point, Johnson said, Harder offered to withdraw the complaint if she would apologize to Trump and leave the NDA in place. She refused. At another point, Trump wanted to countersue her for defamation, but his lawyers talked him out of it, according to two people.

In response to questions, Harder said his legal tactics were “100% permissible discovery in an employment case” and her attorneys did not object. “It’s called litigation, and it’s part of the legal process,” he said.

Johnson’s arbitration case dragged on long after Harder’s firm withdrew. The campaign brought in new outside lawyers, but by then, judges in Denson’s New York case had found the NDA invalid and other courts seemed likely to follow. If Johnson won, Trump’s NDA said the losing party must pay legal fees.

In August 2022, the arbitrator found Johnson’s NDA unenforceable and ordered the campaign to pay her lawyers $303,285. She said she personally received no money but “won the ability to speak.”

In a statement, Cheung, the spokesperson for Trump’s 2024 campaign, called Johnson’s account “an absurd and fake story that has previously been debunked and contradicted by multiple, highly credible eyewitness accounts.”

The campaign also relied on Harder in an NDA case it brought against former White House official Omarosa Manigault Newman, a Black former contestant on “The Apprentice” who wrote a 2018 tell-all book describing Trump as a racist. Trump smeared her on Twitter as a “low life.” Harder said he withdrew from the case before its conclusion.

Newman had signed an NDA in 2016 when she joined the campaign, and its lawyers demanded $1.5 million for violating the secrecy agreement. The case plodded along until 2021, when an arbitration judge ruled in Newman’s favor and found Trump’s NDA too vague to enforce. He ordered the campaign to pay $1.3 million to Newman’s lawyers. “The bully has met his match,” Newman declared at the time. She could not be reached for comment.

A discrimination case pending in a Manhattan court, however, might force the culture of Trump’s previous campaigns and their suppression efforts into the light.

Arlene “AJ” Delgado sued the 2016 campaign and three senior officials for discrimination after she became pregnant by her supervisor, Jason Miller, then the campaign’s chief spokesperson.

Trump had called Delgado a rising star when she went on the campaign trail as one of his Hispanic surrogates, and she expected an administration job. But she claimed that when she confronted Miller about her pregnancy, he told her Trump could not afford to have her “waddling around the White House pregnant.” Other senior officials shut her out of work discussions until her transition job ended with Trump’s inauguration, she claimed.

Ten days after Delgado delivered her baby, the Trump campaign filed a $1.5 million-claim against her for NDA violations. Delgado’s main offense, according to the campaign, was a series of angry tweets about Miller and Trump’s decision to promote him to White House communications director. The attorney on the case, Lawrence Rosen, who left LaRocca Hornik Rosen & Greenberg, as it was then known, late last year, and his former partners did not return calls or emails.

Miller did not respond to repeated attempts to seek comment.

The firm, now named LaRocca, Hornik, Greenberg, Kittredge, Carlin & McPartland, leases space in a Trump office building, and it has long been a favored legal vendor for the Trump campaign. It’s been paid at least $2.8 million since 2016 by the Trump campaign and its affiliated PAC, Make America Great Again, according to campaign reports. Rosen was described on the firm’s website as a “bulldog” litigator, and he recently surfaced in testimony from Trump fixer Michael Cohen as a lawyer involved in his effort to silence Daniels, a porn star.

Delgado, a Harvard Law School graduate, claims in the lawsuit filed in December 2019 that the campaign deprived her of a job and hurt her other employment prospects. Squaring off against campaign lawyers, she serves as her own attorney and has raised money for legal expenses, including taking depositions from top former White House officials, through GoFundMe.

Delgado recently accused the campaign of withholding information about its handling of harassment and discrimination cases. A LaRocca partner said in a court filing the campaign has disclosed all of the information it has on women’s complaints.

The judge ordered the campaign to produce a full list of cases by May 31. (It’s unclear whether there are any cases that have not emerged yet into public view.)

The LaRocca firm abruptly withdrew from the case, citing “irreparable differences” with the campaign, after five years pursuing Delgado in court.

As for former 2016 campaign staffer Denson, now an actress currently hosting a podcast, she continues to pursue her personal discrimination and retaliation suit, saying she wants her persistence to inspire others.

The federal judge’s decision in October 2023 to void NDAs for all 2016 employees, vendors and volunteers was a blow to the campaign. The campaign agreed to pay $450,000 to Denson’s lawyers and to no longer pursue employees for NDA violations.

Denson said her problems began when she went to work for the campaign’s data division as a national phone bank administrator, one of a dozen employees who reported to director Camilo Sandoval. She had no experience and believed she and another woman, a model, were hired simply because of their looks.

She claimed that Sandoval, who later worked in several high-ranking Trump administration jobs, made inappropriate comments and assigned end-of-day tasks to make her stay late. In one private meeting, she said, he reclined on a sofa. In a deposition, Sandoval denied many of Denson’s charges. He did not respond to calls or email.

Denson’s work on a Spanish-language project caught the attention of Steve Bannon, then the campaign’s CEO, who moved her to work on Hispanic outreach and raised her pay by $3,500 a month, records show. Sandoval reacted angrily to the transfer and scolded her immediate boss for letting his “sheep wander.” He told her, “I hired you and I can also fire you,” she alleged.

Denson introduced emails Sandoval sent to senior officials describing her as a security risk who should be reported to the police and the Secret Service. He suggested she was stealing documents and may have had a role in mailing Trump’s 1995 personal tax return to a reporter at The New York Times, court records show. She claimed he tried to obtain her personal laptop while she was traveling. In a deposition, he denied accessing her personal information.

Based on Bannon’s encouraging emails about her performance, Denson thought she would be hired for Trump’s transition. But documents showed the campaign’s human resources director telling others, “Jessica is NOT ever to be hired onto transition, inaugural or brought to DC!” An email from Sandoval to senior official Stephen Miller said, “This bitch is out of control.”

Camilo Sandoval’s email to senior official Stephen Miller Credit: New York County Clerk. Redactions by ProPublica.

She filed a lawsuit in New York state court in November 2017 claiming emotional distress as a result of “pervasive slander,” discrimination and harassment. A month later, Rosen pounced. On Christmas Eve, Denson got papers demanding that she face arbitration for violating her NDA by filing the suit. The campaign sought $1.5 million in damages.

Denson declined to go to arbitration, arguing that her right to a safe workplace was unrelated to the NDA, and the campaign won the judgment for legal fees by default. Rosen had her bank account frozen and went after $1,200 she had raised through GoFundMe.

“This is how cruel and scorched earth they were,” she said in a recent interview.

Denson said in her deposition that Trump campaign lawyers grilled her aggressively about her whereabouts. “Their obsession with my location was very frightening,” she said. “The fear has lived with me ever since.”

She felt further traumatized when the campaign demanded to see mental health and medical records. She was upset when they suggested to her during her deposition that her emotional damage was not extreme.

Denson’s cases followed a circuitous path, and at first she served as her own lawyer because she had no money to pay attorney fees. She remembered crying inconsolably late one night, fearing her situation was hopeless, then waking up to learn an appeals court had sided with her and had thrown out the judgment in the campaign’s favor as unfair.

In March 2021, a federal judge declared her individual NDA invalid under New York state contract law and said the campaign had used NDAs repeatedly to “suppress free speech.” Denson and her legal team moved forward to extend her victory to all 2016 staffers.

Legal experts say the class-action victory established a precedent that should deter future campaigns from trying to quash employees’ free-speech rights.

Denson and other women fighting the campaign have been struck by Trump’s repeated assertions in his own cases that his right to speak freely has been violated.

“I came to the campaign as someone who cared deeply about human rights, First Amendment, individual liberty; I thought I was working on a campaign that supported those values,” Denson said. “Then I saw the opposite of what this country stands for, going after perceived critics and trying to destroy them.”


June 4, 2024: This story originally mischaracterized several aspects of Jessica Denson’s legal fight with the Trump campaign. Denson claims that a supervisor tried to obtain her laptop while she was traveling. She did not claim that he hacked into her laptop while she was traveling. The raise she was given in a new job was $3,500 a month, not $3,000. And a decision to overturn a judgment against Denson was made by an appeals court, not a judge.

Do you have information about discrimination or workplace issues involving the Trump campaign or its payments to lawyers? Email [email protected] or call 347-325-3348.

Alex Mierjeski and Ken Schwencke contributed research.