Trump due to appear in court later this month alleged fraud in his Trump University
Before Donald Trump raises his right hand to take the oath of office in January, he’s set for a less-auspicious swearing-in: taking the witness stand in his own defense in a federal court civil trial over alleged fraud in his Trump University real estate seminar program.
Trump faces a legal ordeal no president-elect has ever encountered: juggling defending himself before a jury with preparing for the vast challenges a political novice will face in assuming the presidency.
And the class-action case set for trial the Monday after Thanksgiving is just one of a plethora of lawsuits and threatened suits Trump was entangled in during the campaign—litigation that doesn’t seem likely to disappear anytime soon and might even intensify with Trump headed to the White House.
In addition to several suits over Trump University, Trump has threatened lawsuits against a dozen or more women who’ve accused him of sexual impropriety in recent months—and several of those women have threatened to countersue if he comes after them.
There’s also a New York state investigation into his charitable foundation and a reported federal investigation into some of his advisers’ ties to Russia.
Beyond that, there’s litigation that Trump himself launched, like the pair of suits against celebrity chefs who backed out of plans to open restaurants in his new luxury Washington hotel.
However, the most immediate challenge for Trump is a Trump University class-action lawsuit set to begin jury selection Nov. 28 in San Diego, with Trump called as a witness by both sides and certain to face sharp questioning about his venture’s marketing practices.
Adding to the drama, the trial will bring Trump face to face with U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel. During the campaign, Trump triggered widespread outrage by arguing that Curiel’s Latino heritage made the judge irredeemably biased against him. The GOP presidential hopeful also called the judge “Mexican” and “Spanish.” He was born in Indiana.
Curiel has made only passing reference in public to Trump’s attacks, noting in a written opinion that Trump had “placed the integrity of these court proceedings at issue.”
Trump’s lawyer, Daniel Petrocelli, has signaled that he may try to delay the trial further. However, Curiel denied a recent effort by Petrocelli to push the trial back and seems intent on getting it completed before the inauguration.
In addition, the suit set for trial later this month has been pending for six years and some of the plaintiffs are elderly.
A good indication of whether the trial will go forward as planned is likely to come Thursday afternoon, when Curiel is scheduled to hear arguments on what kinds of evidence and questions will be off limits during the trial.
At the hearing, Curiel is also scheduled to consider whether Trump’s campaign trail statements will be fair game at the trial and whether all references to allegations about his “personal conduct” should be off limits, as his lawyers’ have urged.
Because it’s a civil case and not a criminal one, Trump is not required to be present throughout the trial, although as it stands now he would have to be in the courtroom to testify for his side and the plaintiffs. He already gave two depositions in the case while he was campaigning.
There are actually two pending federal suits: the one set for trial this month involves Trump University students from California, Florida and New York, addressing claims that the program violated those states’ tough laws against defrauding consumers and the elderly. The other case is national in scope and invokes a federal racketeering statute.
Attorneys pressing the suits against Trump on behalf of former Trump University students say the program fraudulently advertised that instructors were hand-picked by Trump and that students would learn the real estate mogul's "secrets." Even calling the program a "university" was a fraud, the lawsuits contend.
Trump's lawyers say claims that students would be told Trump's "secrets" or that he was personally involved in selecting teachers were, at worst, marketing "puffery" not intended to be taken literally.
The other pending suits involving Trump’s businesses could also head to trial after he’s in the White House. In a 1997 case involving President Bill Clinton and a woman suing him for sexual harassment, Paula Jones, the Supreme Court ruled that a sitting president is not immune from litigation over actions taken before he took office.
The high court did say deference to the president in terms of scheduling would be appropriate, though not a deferral until he leaves office.
“Although scheduling problems may arise, there is no reason to assume that the district courts will be either unable to accommodate the President's needs or unfaithful to the tradition-especially in matters involving national security of giving ‘the utmost deference to Presidential responsibilities,’” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote. “We have confidence in the ability of our federal judges to deal with both of these concerns.”
Of course, if Trump’s keen on cutting back some of his legal thicket, he could simply drop some of the cases he’s filed, like the suits against the restaurateurs. He could forgo his plans to sue his female accusers. And to make the Trump University cases he could do something he has long vowed not to do: swallow his pride and pay up.