During the campaign, Donald Trump was eager to boast that if elected president he would take office unencumbered by a career in public office — unlike Hillary Clinton, who would be entangled at the outset in investigations and controversies arising from her decades in public life.
But just two days after the election, and hours after meeting with President Obama to discuss his assumption of power, he was dealt a reminder that the legal disputes arising from his personal and business life would follow him into the Oval Office.
The occasion was a hearing in the fraud suit over Trump University, which has been hanging over him for years and is now scheduled to begin on Nov. 28. He was dealt a setback by U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, whose name was dragged into the presidential campaign when Trump denounced him as “a hater of Donald Trump,” owing to his Mexican heritage. Curiel denied a motion by Trump’s lawyers seeking to exclude from the civil trial any testimony about issues that arose during the presidential race, including Trump’s public statements, tweets and “personal conduct accusations” — a reference to claims by a dozen women that he sexually assaulted or harassed them. Trump has denied the women’s claims and has threatened to sue them for defamation.
Curiel’s written ruling and the sometimes contentious hearing that followed in his San Diego courtroom underscored the complexities of Trump’s situation: about to assume the presidency while dealing with lingering legal disputes from his career as a celebrity businessman — none of which go away merely because he is about to move into the White House.
Most prominent among them are three outstanding lawsuits over Trump University — two of them before Judge Curiel — in which Trump stands accused of orchestrating a multimillion-dollar fraud, luring students to pay tens of thousands of dollars for allegedly worthless courses that would teach them to “make a killing” in the real estate market.
Curiel turned down the request to exclude testimony about Trump’s campaign tweets and personal conduct after lawyers for the plaintiffs, who are former students of the unaccredited and now defunct “university,” argued that Trump, the lead defendant in the case and a scheduled witness, was trying to be protected from evidence about his own “penchant for dishonesty.”
“Donald Trump’s dizzying array of objectively false, contradictory, and self-defeating statements have left him so flummoxed he is demanding that the Court create a new category of immunity to protect him from himself,” the lawyers for the students argued in a motion to Curiel filed just days before the election.
Curiel, in his ruling, decided that Trump’s lawyers hadn’t been specific enough about what exactly they wanted barred from the case. He said he would rule during trial whether particular issues could be brought up by the plaintiffs seeking to impeach Trump’s credibility as a witness.
During the Thursday hearing, Curiel tried to prod the parties to settle the case rather than proceed to trial, saying he had recruited another federal judge, Jeffrey Miller, to serve as a potential arbiter. “It would be wise for the plaintiffs and the defendants to look to resolving this case,” he said.
But Trump’s lead lawyer — famed litigator Daniel Petrocelli — instead pressed Curiel to simply postpone the upcoming trial, contending that his client would be too busy preparing to take over the presidency and staff his administration to appear on the witness stand. He insisted that his client still wanted to testify and asked Curiel to push back the case until next year, sometime between February and April.
“We asked to postpone the trial,” Petrocelli told Yahoo News after the hearing. He later told reporters he would file a formal motion “in the next day or so” to do so. But he did not explain why he thought Trump would be less busy next year, when he will actually be president.
“Hopefully, we will be able to get the trial deferred for a few months so that President-elect Trump and members of his transition team can do the important work in front of them and the inauguration can occur, and then we can turn to this case and try to dispense of this case,” Petrocelli said. “We all have an obligation, in a variety of ways, to resolve this case. This is a very difficult circumstance for a sitting president, more so I would say for a president-elect. He’s trying right now as we speak to mount the challenges in front of him to get up to speed to do the hard work that needs to be done so that there is a seamless transition of power from one administration to the next.”
Petrocelli said he was open to Curiel’s suggestion that his client begin discussions before Judge Miller aimed at settling the five-year-old lawsuit, or at least forgoing the trial by moving it into arbitration proceedings. But he acknowledged he wasn’t sure his client — who had repeatedly insisted during the campaign he had no intention of settling — would go along with it.
“I don’t know if he [Trump] has any willingness to settle this case,” Petrocelli said. “It is my judgment that it is an option that at least needs to be considered. I’m sure he will give it consideration, given all the other responsibilities and obligations that he has. Now you understand that a settlement takes two to tango. You can’t have any settlement unless the parties are of like mind and they’re all reasonable. We are happy to meet with Judge Miller and will do so and see if that’s productive. There are other ways to resolve this without being in a court trial or jury trial.”
As for Trump taking the witness stand, Petrocelli said that before his election as president, his client “was very clear on his desire to appear in person and put these accusations to rest. Now he’s going to have to have to take into account of whether it’s the best use of his time, and he has to weigh his desire to be here against needs of the country right now.”
The Trump University case concerns the running of a for-profit business school 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.”
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 Entrepreneur Initiative. The suit by the former students allege that Trump used “misleading, fraudulent and predatory practices” to charge them thousands of dollars — in some cases more than $35,000 — for seminars and “mentoring” by Trump’s “handpicked” real estate experts. The lawsuit alleges that the seminars were little more than an “infomercial,” and that the Trump mentors offered “no practical advice” and “mostly disappeared.”
Trump has consistently denied the allegations and insisted that questionnaires filled out by students after the seminars showed that “98 percent” of them had positive experiences. But Curiel tentatively ruled against allowing those questionnaires into evidence, concluding they constituted hearsay and the questions were not specific to the allegations in the lawsuits.
According to a recent USA Today analysis, the Trump University cases are among 75 ongoing lawsuits in federal and state courts that Trump will continue to face as president. Among them, the paper reported, are a $4 million lawsuit brought by a Republican political consultant who said Trump defamed her; a class-action suit claiming his presidential campaign broke consumer protection laws by sending unsolicited text messages to people’s cellphones; and a suit by a golf club employee who says she was fired after complaining to her bosses about sexual harassment.