For the first time in our nation’s history, before our president-elect takes the Oath of Office, he’ll be taking an oath in court. Later this month he’s set to take the stand in one of the class-action lawsuits against him, the thrust of which is that he defrauded people who signed up for his real estate program, “Trump University” (which, to be clear, was not a university).
The trial for Low v. Trump University is slated to begin Monday, November 28 in San Diego; it will come before Gonzalo Curiel, the Indiana-born judge whom Trump attacked this summer, claiming Curiel’s Mexican heritage prevented him from being impartial.
In a ruling yesterday, Curiel said he was disinclined to grant Trump lawyer Daniel Petrocelli’s request to delay the trial a year, but that he was open to allowing Trump to testify via video instead of in person. The decision underscored the strange reality in which Trump finds himself: His status as president-elect won’t spare him from ongoing litigation. Even once he becomes president, he’ll still have to show up for court dates and testify when asked.
“Since these cases began before Trump was elected and they don’t involve any of his conduct as president, there’s nothing about his being president-elect or president that would stop them,” says Michael Gerhardt, a professor of constitutional law at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Gerhardt points out that the Supreme Court case Clinton v. Jones — allowing Paula Jones’s sexual harassment case against Bill Clinton to move forward — provides the legal framework for ongoing litigation against Trump, or any new litigation, for that matter.
In addition to Low v. Trump University, there’s Cohen v. Trump University, alleging that Trump’s program violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. No court date has been set for Cohen. The plaintiffs, many who are senior citizens, are looking for reimbursement and damages.
“We’ve never had anybody elected president directly from the status of being a private citizen and running a business,” says Gerhardt. “Usually we’ve elected somebody who’s already in public office, so his circumstances are just different than any other presidential election in history.”
Add to that, a president-elect in the midst of being sued multiple times? Unprecedented.
Throughout the campaign, Trump threatened to sue various individuals and publications, including The New York Times. At least a dozen women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, and he’s threatened to sue them too.
Could he sue people from behind his desk in the Oval Office?
“At least in theory, yes,” says Gerhardt. “I don’t think there’s anything about being president that necessarily precludes your undertaking civil or other actions while you’re president.” As for defamation, Gerhardt says that as a public figure, one must prove malicious intent, adding that, in defamation cases, truth is an absolute defense.
“So if it turns out that any of the things said about him have been proven true in a court of law, there’s nothing that can be done against that,” Gerhardt adds.
Just last week, an anonymous woman abruptly dropped a civil lawsuit against Trump alleging that he had raped her in 1994, when she was 13 years old.
According to her complaint, she was attacked by Trump several times at Manhattan parties hosted by Jeffrey Epstein, who was convicted in 2008 of soliciting an underaged prostitute and is now a registered sex offender.
Trump told New York magazine in a 2002 interview, “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it — Jeffrey enjoys his social life.”
In her sworn statement, Jane Doe said that she had come to New York City when she was 13 years old, with the hopes of starting a modeling career. She met a woman who told her that “if I would join her at the parties, I would be introduced to people who could get me into the modeling profession,” and that she would be paid to attend the parties.
According to her complaint, Trump had sexual contact with her at four different parties during the summer of 1994.
“On the fourth and final sexual encounter with Defendant Trump,” she says in court papers, Trump “tied me to a bed, exposed himself to me, and then proceeded to forcibly rape me. During the course of this savage sexual attack, I loudly pleaded with Defendant Trump to stop but he did not. Defendant Trump responded to my pleas by violently striking me in the face with his open hand and screaming that he would do whatever he wanted.”
Afterward, Doe says, both Trump and Epstein threatened her with physical harm if she ever told anyone. She adds that after she filed her first complaint in April of this year, she started receiving threatening phone calls.
In a sworn witness statement, the woman who first invited Doe to the parties, using the pseudonym “Tiffany Doe,” says in court papers, “I personally witnessed the Plaintiff (Jane Doe) being forced to perform various sexual acts with Donald J. Trump and Mr. Epstein,” and that they both knew she was 13.
Trump has vigorously denied the allegations, telling Radar Online, according to court papers, “The allegations are not only categorically false, but disgusting at the highest level and clearly framed to solicit media attention, or perhaps, are simply politically motivated. There is absolutely no merit to these allegations. Period.”
A press conference scheduled for last week was canceled at the last minute. One of Doe’s attorneys, Lisa Bloom, told the waiting press corps that her client had received death threats.
Attorneys for Trump and Jane Doe did not respond to MEL’s requests for comment.
It’s not out of the realm of possibility that ongoing or future litigation against Trump could result in impeachment.
“The analogy that works best is Clinton,” Gerhardt says. In that case, the allegations had to do with behavior before Clinton was president. “In the course of the case, material was produced that ended up becoming relevant, a lot of people argued, to the presidency and became the basis for impeachment. So it depends on what discovery produces in any of these cases,” he says. “It’s not out of the question.”
All of the litigation against Trump is civil. Historically, there have never been criminal charges brought against a sitting president—not even during Watergate. In the Clinton case, Ken Starr opted for an offer of impeachment.
“There’s a big question that’s not been answered in American Constitutional law, and that’s whether any kind of criminal action could be brought against a sitting president, even for pre-presidential conduct,” Gerhardt says. “I think the short answer is: We don’t know the answer to that.”