The historically ironic reason why President Trump cannot escape a flood of lawsuits

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on February 10, 2011. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons)

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on February 10, 2011. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore (Creative Commons)

Back in 1997, the Supreme Court decided a president couldn’t claim he was too busy to deal with a civil lawsuit lodged against him for actions a litigant claimed he did before becoming president.

In Clinton v JonesPresident Bill Clinton tried to put off a sexual harassment case filed by Paula Jones that dated back to his time as Governor of Arkansas. After the court unanimously decided he could not, and that presidents had to face civil cases from before becoming president, the case went forward.

This was to be highly consequential because discovery ended up including Clinton’s consensual sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Ultimately issues surrounding that led to the House of Representatives impeaching Clinton. The Senate held an impeachment trial and no charges got anywhere near the two-thirds vote needed to remove Clinton. In fact, none got a majority.

What’s historically ironic about that?

The big irony is simply that the case was encouraged and funded by right-wing critics of the husband of Trump’s Democratic opponent. During that time, Hillary Clinton characterized those efforts as part of a “vast right wing conspiracy” aimed at bringing down Bill Clinton’s presidency.

But there’s another very specific irony that’s linked to Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway.

Conway’s husband wrote the brief for Supreme Court case that argued that presidents have to face civil suits based on claimed pre-presidential actions.

As reporter Ryan Lizza noted:

Kellyanne’s husband is George T. Conway III, who as a young lawyer played a historic—and largely hidden—role in the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Conway, a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law School, worked at the New York City firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz, and was a member of the Federalist Society, the conservative organization that led many of the legal challenges to the Clinton Administration. When Paula Jones sued Bill Clinton for sexual harassment, Conway wrote the Supreme Court brief, though his name never appeared on it. The Court, in a landmark decision, agreed with Jones’s argument that a sitting President could face a civil lawsuit. During depositions in the lawsuit, Clinton denied having a sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, which eventually led to his impeachment trial. George Conway became deeply involved in getting out information from the depositions. During that period, he reportedly e-mailed Matt Drudge an infamous scoop about the shape of Clinton’s penis. [source]

So when Trump has to deal with a coming wave of at least 75 civil cases when he’s president, it will be because of the legal success of a lawyer who spread salacious details about Hillary Clinton’s husband who is now married to Trump’s campaign manager.

The biggest Trump case is a federal trial on fraud charges, based in a class action suit linked to Trump University.

Students of Trump University say it was a scam with little learning but relentless efforts to upsell increasingly expensive classes. Discovery in the case supports that.

For instance, one of Trump’s salesmen said in a deposition that he resigned because he “believed that Trump University was engaging in misleading, fraudulent and dishonest conduct. I found it particularly offensive that that Trump University claimed it wanted to help consumers make money in real estate, in fact Trump University was only interested in selling every person the most expensive seminars they possibly could.”

Right now the case is scheduled for later this month, so it may be heard before Trump becomes president.

But Trump’s lawyer is asking to push the case past January because he says Trump has too many demands on his time now.

The judge overseeing the case has yet to rule about the request to put off the case, and he has urged the parties to settle the case. If the case is settled, Trump would pay the litigants money but he wouldn’t have the facts of the case aired in open court. Nor would he need to testify.

But no matter what happens with the Trump University case, many more civil cases await Trump and he has no legal standing to delay them until after leaving the presidency. Like Bill Clinton, Trump would have to deal with civil litigants with legal complaints regarding actions before he was president.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.