Extra White House Perk for Trump: Leverage in Court Fightsby
Given demands of job, Trump U. judge likely to cut him a break
Lawsuits are the norm for president-elect and his companies
Donald Trump may have found a sure-fire way to avoid taking the witness stand this month to face Trump University students who say he cheated them -- get elected president.
His election means he probably won’t have to testify in lawsuits accusing him of cheating condo owners, golf-course members or vendors serving his businesses, according to legal experts. And none of the cases pending against Trump is likely to create the type of scandal that led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, they said.
“I don’t think any of the lawsuits will pose a peril to his presidency,” said Harvey M. Tettlebaum, past president of the Republican National Lawyers Association, who said Trump’s election would also give him a stronger hand in settlement talks with adversaries. “I would anticipate that they’re going to settle all of the lawsuits, one way or another.”
Lawsuits are commonplace for the New York businessman, whose name has been plastered on hotels, golf courses, neckties and packages of steak. Since 2000, Trump and his companies have either sued or been sued at least 1,300 times, a Bloomberg analysis of state and federal court filings from around the country shows. Just last month, Trump vowed that after the election he would sue 10 women who accused him of inappropriate sexual contact, claiming they lied.
Thursday, Trump’s lawyers are scheduled to argue in San Diego that comments he made during the campaign can’t be used in the case by former Trump University students. They claim they were lured by false promises into paying as much as $35,000 to learn the billionaire’s investment secrets by instructors hand-picked by Trump.
The trial is set to begin Nov. 28. Because it’s a civil case, Trump won’t necessarily have to appear in court. The judge is likely to rule that the students must rely on two depositions he has already provided instead of calling him to the witness stand, said Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law.
“If the plaintiffs wanted to call him, I think the judge would say under the circumstances, I’m not going to require him to testify,” Gillers said. “He’s got a transition to take care of. The judge can consider the needs of the country and his obligations to begin to form a government.”
Trump could decide to testify in person, or request to appear by video conference, Gillers said.
“The question is whether he can fit that into his schedule,” Gillers said. “I suspect not, and the judge would honor that.”
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman also sued Trump’s namesake school for operating without a license and misleading students, a case that Trump is now seeking to dismiss. In another case, Schneiderman issued a cease-and-desist order this year over the Trump Foundation’s failure to properly as a charity under state law. Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, said lawyers in her office are scheduled to introduce their opening brief in appellate court Dec. 5. She declined to comment on the Trump Foundation, saying it was an ongoing investigation.
Then there are suits with former members of Trump’s Florida golf course, who demanded a refund; two celebrity chefs who pulled out of one of his hotel projects after the candidate made disparaging remarks about Mexicans; and Palm Beach County, which Trump says set up a flight path to send noisy planes over his private club, Mar-A-Lago.
While the White House may be able to keep Trump off the witness stand, he can’t expect immunity from lawsuits. Clinton’s legal problems paved the way for presidents to face lawsuits while in office. Clinton was sued in 1994 by Paula Jones, who claimed he sexually harassed her when he was governor of Arkansas. Clinton urged the U.S. Supreme Court to delay the case, but the justices disagreed.
"The Supreme Court ruled that there is no categorical prohibition of a civil suit going forward while the president was still in office,” said Samuel Issacharoff, who also teaches law at NYU. “The idea that one can tie up a sitting president, who has responsibility for national security and everything else, in a civil suit is rather disturbing.”
Clinton’s lawyer in the Jones case, Robert Bennett, said the judge in the San Diego Trump University trial -- and a related racketeering case -- is unlikely to order Trump to testify after giving two depositions. Trump accused the judge during the campaign of being biased against him because of his Mexican-American heritage.
“There’s an excellent chance that the judge would say you’ve had two bites at the apple, and that’s enough,” Bennett said.
Bennett also suggested that Trump abandon his pledge to sue the women for accusing him of sexual misconduct.
“My advice would be, ‘You’re the president of the United States now, why don’t you move on?”’ Bennett said. “It wouldn’t look good to use your position of enormous power to go after a woman who probably doesn’t have money anyway. Common sense would say let it go.”