How Trump could turn the presidency into a ‘litigation circus’

Michael Isikoff
·Chief Investigative Correspondent

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Yahoo illustration (Photos by AP, Getty)

Kathleen Meese, an upstate New York schoolteacher, plunked down $25,000 five years ago for “Gold Elite” courses at Trump University — a for-profit educational outfit owned by Donald Trump that promised prospective students it would teach them how to “make a killing” in the real estate market.

But Meese later complained to New York state regulators she was conned. Her Trump University instructor — supposedly an “expert” who was “handpicked” by Trump — turned out to be a failed businessman who had filed for bankruptcy and was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, according to court records.

Her Trump University “mentors,” who she was told would counsel her about real estate deals, were unreachable; their phone numbers disconnected, she asserted. Even a promised photo session with Trump never materialized. What she got instead: a photo of herself with “a cardboard cutout” of Trump, she says.

“Donald Trump received $25,000 of my money,” Meese wrote in a sworn affidavit filed with the New York attorney general’s office, reviewed by Yahoo News. “For $25,000, I have a lifetime membership to nothing!”

Meese is one of more than 150 former Trump University students whose complaints are the basis for a $40 million lawsuit against Trump brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The number of complainants — all potential witnesses against Trump — has more than tripled since Schneiderman first brought the case two years ago, according to state officials. The suit, still active in the New York courts, accuses Trump of pocketing $5 million in profits while running “an unlicensed, illegal educational institution” that “intentionally” misled students and engaged in a “pattern of deceptions” that included false advertisements, “bait and switch tactics” and other “misrepresentations and fraudulent practices.”

The lawsuit filed by Schneiderman, a Democrat, is on top of two other class action claims that have been filed against Trump by former students in federal court in California — one of which accuses the billionaire real estate mogul of a “pattern of racketeering activities.” They are being vigorously contested by Trump and his army of lawyers, but threaten a continuous toll on his crowded schedule. Just last week, sources confirmed to Yahoo News, Trump was due to be deposed in one of the California cases, but the scheduled grilling was put off until the fall to give the plaintiffs’ lawyers more time to seek evidence.

“Mr. Trump has no concerns about testifying in this case, whether it is today, tomorrow or next year,” said Jeffrey Goldman, one of Trump’s lawyers, who is defending him in the case. “None of it is true. No one was defrauded,” adds Alan Garten — Trump Organization’s general counsel, who heads up the real estate mogul’s vast legal team — about the allegations in the lawsuits against Trump University. (After receiving warnings from the New York Education Department that it was not a licensed educational institution, the school was later renamed “the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative” and is no longer conducting any business.)

“The people that take these classes go into it with their eyes open,” said Garten. “A lot of people did very well with [Trump University.] A lot of people enjoyed it. But like everything else, if people don’t put the effort into it” they don’t succeed.

However the Trump University lawsuits are ultimately resolved — and even Trump’s lawyers acknowledge it could take years — they illustrate an aspect of Trump’s business career that has received relatively little attention as he pursues his campaign for president: He is a litigation magnet who has been the target (and the initiator) of hundreds of civil suits over the past several decades.

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President Bill Clinton’s attorney Robert Bennett in 1994. (Photo: Denis Paquin/AP)

And, as a result of a unanimous Supreme Court ruling in 1997, when President Bill Clinton unsuccessfully challenged Paula Jones’ right to sue him for sexual harassment, Trump’s legal tangles could follow him right into the Oval Office were he to be elected.

“Given the state of the law, he would be at substantial risk of being embroiled in these lawsuits while serving as president,” said Robert Bennett, who represented then-President Bill Clinton in the Jones case and failed to persuade the Supreme Court that sitting presidents should not have to face the distraction of civil litigation.

What that means, says Jared Beck, a Florida lawyer who has battled Trump and his lawyers in court, is that a Trump presidency “would be a litigation circus.”

Adds Beck: “This is somebody who either initiates litigation or invites litigation. It would put the country in a perilous position. How can somebody be president and be responsible for governing this country when they are preoccupied with massive amounts of litigation? Litigation takes time, you have to prepare. With Clinton, that was one case — and look how much time it sucked up. Imagine if somebody had a multiplicity of lawsuits like Trump.”

Indeed, Trump’s penchant for litigation — and punching back against his critics in court — has shown no signs of abating while he is on the campaign trail. After celebrity chef José Andrés withdrew from a deal to operate one of his restaurants at a Trump-owned luxury hotel in Washington — in protest over Trump’s comments last June that immigrants crossing the border from Mexico were “bringing crime” and “rapists” — Trump sued him for $10 million.

After Univision backed out of broadcasting his Miss USA pageant over the same issue, Trump sued the network for $500 million for breach of contract — and defamation. (Trump alleged that the comments a Univision executive made in an Instagram post — comparing Trump to Charleston, S.C., shooter Dylann Roof — were part of an attempt to “suppress Mr. Trump’s right to free speech” and had caused him to “suffer special damages to his reputation,” his lawsuit asserts.) Univision, which labeled the lawsuit “legally ridiculous,” recently retained a high-powered legal team that includes famed New York litigator Randy Mastro to defend it, all but guaranteeing a bruising (and likely protracted) legal battle.

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Paula Jones and her husband, Stephen Jones, in 1998. (Photo: Greg Gibson/AP)

Garten, Trump’s top lawyer, said that other breach-of-contract cases stemming from Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants were currently “in private arbitration,” though he did not rule out that they too could end up in court “if we can’t resolve them.” But he dismissed the idea that any of the ongoing lawsuits — which he called “a natural part of doing business in this country” — would in any way interfere with his boss’ ability to serve as a full-time president.

“I don’t believe it will be much, if any, distraction,” said Garten. “If parties request [Trump’s] deposition, it will be to harass, and it will be vigorously resisted.” In any case, he added, “Every president that I can recall has had to deal with personal matters.”

Still, a look at Schneiderman’s lawsuit against Trump University shows it could tie up Trump for some time as he fends off multiple allegations of fraud. Trump launched the school in 2005 with a promotional You Tube video as well as ads that proclaimed, “I can turn anyone into a successful real estate investor, including you,” “Are YOU My Next Apprentice?” and “Learn from my handpicked experts how you can profit from the largest real estate liquidation in history.”

But in May 2011, Schneiderman’s office launched an investigation and subpoenaed records from Trump’s organization after receiving complaints from students that the school had failed to deliver on its promises.

The complainants described paying for three-day seminars in which Trump appeared as a “special guest speaker” and then prodded them to invest ever-escalating sums for special mentoring packages in which they would learn the inside tricks of the real estate trade.

“During the first day of the three day program, Trump conducted an exercise to get us to be bold,” wrote Maribel Paredes, a personal fitness trainer who paid $700 to attend a 2009 seminar at a Manhattan hotel, in a sworn affidavit filed with Schneiderman’s office. “We were asked to call our credit card companies to increase the credit limit on our cards. I increased my credit card limit at Trump’s insistence” and then later used $4,500 of the funds to purchase a “bronze elite” membership for additional tutoring by Trump University instructors.

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Donald Trump (Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)

But, she added, the instructors gave her little more guidance than telling her “to look through the newspapers, find properties and start making calls. … I feel that Trump was a scam.”

Patricia Rodriguez, another former Trump University student, described paying $1,495 for a three-day seminar called “Fast Track to Foreclosure,” where Trump’s photograph hung from the entrance of the hotel ballroom and the instructors encouraged the students to sign up for the more expensive mentorship programs.

“They said that if we did not sign up for these intensive advanced programs we would be ‘going nowhere,’” Rodriguez wrote in a sworn affidavit. She paid an additional $4,995 for one such program, but later had second thoughts and, after three phone calls and a visit to the Trump building, received a refund.

Trump University’s top executive, Michael Sexton, appeared to privately acknowledge the validity of some of the complaints about Trump “mentors” not following up and being available to students. “This represents a major known problem that we have with our business,” he wrote in a January 2009 internal email uncovered by Schneiderman’s investigators.

But Garten said that such complaints were unrepresentative of Trump University students, and charged that Schneiderman’s lawsuit was little more than a publicity stunt. “He went on a press junket to promote his lawsuit,” he said.

Trump and his lawyers have also struck back, demanding that Schneiderman produce all his witnesses for pretrial depositions, and countering that many of the allegations were past the statute of limitations. Calling Schneiderman “a total low-life” and “sleazebag,” Trump also filed an ethics complaint against the attorney general on the grounds that the state official had solicited campaign funds from his daughter, Ivanka, while he was conducting his investigation.

Trump’s complaint was recently tossed out by the New York Joint Commission on Public Ethics, and Schneiderman returned the $500 campaign check he received from Ivanka Trump. In the meantime, the case is slowly winding its way through the New York courts, with an appellate hearing scheduled for this fall on the statute of limitation issue — and a trial date is nowhere in sight.