Alva Johnson, who worked on President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, is living in an undisclosed location since suing him for sexual assault, her lawyer says
In the weeks since she publicly accused President Donald Trump of forcibly kissing her during his 2016 campaign, Alva Johnson and her family have moved to undisclosed “safe locations” out of fear of repercussions from her federal lawsuit against him, her attorney tells PEOPLE.
“We think those fears are justified,” says Hassan A. Zavareei while noting that Johnson, a former staffer on the Trump campaign, has not received “any direct threats.”
The White House has denied Johnson’s allegation of battery via the unwanted kiss.
Zavareei says he and other lawyers on the case “have gotten threatening emails” and Johnson has been the subject of racist attacks online.
“I think she was expecting that, she was ready for that,” Zavareei says. “It doesn’t make it any easier, but she’s a brave woman and I think she’s going to be okay.”
Johnson and relatives are “where folks can’t find them,” Zavareei says.
According to the Washington Post, which first reported news of Johnson’s complaint last month, she is the first woman to publicly claim Trump sexually mistreated them while in office or while he was campaigning for president.
Previous allegations against Trump from more than a dozen women date back decades. He has vigorously denied them all.
Initially the director of outreach and coalitions in Alabama, Johnson later joined a campaign “strike team” to work in Florida, a key battleground state for the presidency, the Post reported.
Johnson’s suit states that the president allegedly kissed her while on an RV ahead of a campaign rally in Florida on Aug. 24, 2016: “He moved close enough that she could feel his breath on her skin. … Trump was trying to kiss her on the mouth, and [Johnson] attempted to avoid this by turning her head to the right. Defendant Trump kissed her anyway, and the kiss landed on the corner of her mouth.”
“I immediately felt violated because I wasn’t expecting it or wanting it,” Johnson told the Post.
“I can still see his lips coming straight for my face,” she said.
In a statement to PEOPLE after the suit was filed, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders dismissed Johnson’s allegation as “absurd on its face.”
“This never happened and is directly contradicted by multiple highly credible eyewitness accounts,” Sanders said.
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Though the Post confirmed that Johnson contemporaneously told her parents and boyfriend about the alleged kiss that same day, two of the women whom she said were witnesses — former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Karen Giorno, a state-level director on the campaign, both supporters of the president — told the Post they did not see a kiss.
In Zavareei’s view, however, both Bondi and Giorno have serious problems with their credibility such as their close ties to Trump.
He also addresses other criticisms of Johnson, including the fact that she attended the president’s inaugural ball and applied for jobs in his administration. Zavareei says that Johnson first sought a lawyer in the wake of the notorious Access Hollywood tape, before Trump was elected, but that lawyer “sort of got cold feet.” After Trump won, Johnson “didn’t want to go up against a sitting president,” Zavareei says.
He says that campaign officials told Johnson to apply for a position — “She had earned the opportunity to have a job in the administration … people who had done much less for the campaign than her were awarded positions in the administration.”
While Johnson tried to “bury” her campaign experience with Trump, “What happened was eventually just sort of seeing what was happening and what kind of president she’d helped elected, I think the guilt of that — the responsibility of that, became too much of her,” Zavareei says, noting the president’s much-criticized response after the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and his policy of separating immigrant families trying to illegally enter the country.
“People are complicated, and I think one of the things is she really does feel this awful burden of guilt,” Zavareei says.
He continues: “Particularly as an African-American woman, sort of seeing what this president has been like and the way he’s treated women and minorities has been really, really hard for her, and I think she feels like speaking up and bringing this fight to Trump is, in a way, a means for her to redeem herself.”
Zavareei, who is representing Johnson for a contingency fee (meaning he is only paid if they win or receive a settlement), expects “a long fight.”
He acknowledges the exposure it brings to him but pivots back to the exposure of other, more important issues, he says. In addition to alleging sexual misconduct, Johnson states in her lawsuit that she was paid less than other staffers because of her gender and race.
A spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign told the Post that the claim Johnson’s pay was different based on her race was “off-base and unfounded.” (The campaign did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.)
Johnson is seeking a class-action lawsuit based on her pay discrimination claims. She names both Trump and his campaign as defendants.
Court records show that while the lawsuit has been served, no hearings have been set. Johnson would like a jury trial and Zavareei says they would like to depose the president beforehand.
“The fact that we have a sex predator in the White House is something that I think unfortunately has become normalized,” he says, “and I think the case like this is really important … so people can be reminded of what we’re dealing with here.”