President-elect or not, Trump is going to trial this year in Trump U fraud case

Michael Isikoff
·Chief Investigative Correspondent
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Donald Trump answers questions from reporters at the National Federation of Republican Assemblies in Nashville regarding an investigation of the now defunct Trump University, Aug. 29, 2015. (Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP)

A federal judge in San Diego set the stage on Friday for what could be one of the strangest presidential transitions in history: He ordered that Donald Trump must go to trial starting Nov. 28 in a civil case in which he is accused of defrauding students who attended Trump University.

“No doubt this will be a challenge … we’re in unchartered waters,” said Daniel Petrocelli, Trump’s lead lawyer in the case, when asked later how his client — if elected in November — would be able to balance preparing to take over the presidency with taking the witness stand in a trial that could run almost until the eve of the following January’s inauguration.

But Petrocelli said Trump was fully prepared to testify and would even attend “most, if not all” of the trial in order to vindicate himself. “His preference would be to be here for the entirety of the trial,” Petrocelli said. “He believes this case is unwarranted and he wants to defend himself fully.”

The ruling today by U.S. Judge Gonzalo Curiel, during a pretrial conference on the six-year-old lawsuit, actually represented a small victory for Trump. The lawyers for the plaintiffs, arguing that “justice delayed is justice denied,” had asked for a trial to start as early as this summer — immediately after the Republican convention in Cleveland. “There are people who are still paying off their debts for the money they paid to Trump University,” said Jason Forge, a lead lawyer for the plaintiffs suing Trump.

Petrocelli, for his part, pushed back, contending that a trial over Trump University would end up becoming a media spectacle that would amount to an “unwarranted intrusion” on the November elections. He had asked that Curiel put the whole matter off until next February, after the inauguration, arguing that Trump, if elected, would be working “around the clock” during the transition to form a Cabinet. He acknowledged to Curiel that he was “fully aware” that a President Trump would not be able to postpone the case indefinitely, consistent with the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling that President Bill Clinton was not immune to a civil suit by Paula Jones, alleging sexual harassment.

Curiel decided to split the difference: In an effort to “accommodate” Trump’s political campaign, he agreed to put the trial off until after the election — but scheduled it right afterward, rather than “waiting for [a] President Trump to begin his first term,” thereby “placing him a situation where, as a sitting president, he is taking up time as leader of the free world” to sit through trial. (Anticipating difficulty in finding unbiased jurors, the judge said he may want to start jury selection even earlier than Nov. 28.)

But Trump may still find his legal troubles impinging on his campaign; he is facing a separate trial in New York state courts in a civil fraud suit, also stemming from the ill-fated Trump University, brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. (No trial date has been set on that case yet, but a spokesman for Schneiderman told Yahoo News that his office believes it could begin as early as this fall.)

The hearing today is the latest development in a case that has already erupted as a campaign issue and has threatened to shine a spotlight on Trump’s business practices — including his penchant for making hyperbolic claims to consumers — at the very moment he is trying to persuade voters he can deliver on his campaign pledges to end illegal immigration, destroy the Islamic State and balance the federal budget without touching entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.

The core case revolves around the operations of a school Trump launched in 2005 with a promotional YouTube video and 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.”

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Donald Trump during a 2005 news conference announcing the establishment of Trump University in New York City. (Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In fact, Trump University was never an accredited educational institution, and he was later forced by state attorneys general to change its name to the “Trump Entrepreneurial Initiative.” The plaintiffs, former students at Trump University, allege that Trump used “misleading, fraudulent and predatory practices,” conning them into maxing out their credit cards and in some cases paying more than $35,000 in fees for seminars and “mentoring” by Trump’s “handpicked” real estate experts. The lawsuit against the school, which is no longer in business, alleges that the seminars were little more than an “infomercial” and that the Trump mentors offered “no practical advice” and “mostly disappeared.”

One key issue in the case has been Trump’s boasts that the “courses” and “mentoring” would be conducted by the “best of the best” — real estate experts he personally chose. During a deposition last December, Forge hammered away at Trump on the issue, showing the businessman a photo lineup and playing videos of some of the instructors and asking him if he could identify any of them. Trump could not, at first saying it was “too many years” ago for him to recognize them and then finally admitting he didn’t actually know any of them. “I looked at résumés and things, but I didn’t pick the speakers,” Trump said at one point.

Trump’s lawyers have adamantly denied the charges and insisted that most students who took the courses were satisfied. On the campaign trial, Trump has vowed to never settle the case, claiming it was brought by a “sleazebag law firm” — a reference to Forge’s firm, Robbins Geller — and confidently predicted, “I will win the case at the end.” He has even criticized Judge Curiel, claiming he was biased against him because of his Hispanic origin. “If I didn’t have a hostile judge in California, this case would have ended years ago,” he said during a campaign rally in Arkansas last Feb. 26. (Trump had even suggested he might move for Curiel’s recusal, based on his Hispanic origin, but Petrocelli told reporters today he had no plans to file such a motion.)

The case has already eaten up Trump’s time on the campaign trail, forcing him to sit for two contentious last December and January in which he was grilled by Forge, prompting him to complaint at one point about “harassment” by the lawyer and to shoot back at another point, “Let’s just go to court and get this case — I’m dying to go to court in this case.”

It looks like he might be getting his wish.