On January 20, the Trump team will move into the White House. One thing Donald Trump will be bringing with him: an unprecedented number of unsettled lawsuits.
At least 75 lawsuits against President-elect Trump and his businesses remained open two weeks before the election, a USA TODAY analysis of state and federal court records found. They include a defamation suit by a GOP political consultant, two cases relating to Trump’s Jupiter, Fla. golf course, and a fraud case involving Trump University. This last case – brought by students who say they were charged up to $35,000 and lied to about the content of the course – is scheduled to go to trial the Monday after Thanksgiving.
Legal issues were a prominent part of the presidential election campaign on both sides – and it’s unclear how much the cases involving Trump actually mattered to voters. The cases could prove to be an unwelcome distraction during the always-tricky transition period, however.
"The first impression that they make is the most important and the way that people evaluate what the new president is going to be like," David E. Lewis, professor of political science and chair of the political science department at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. "If the narrative about your administration is related to your personal difficulties or legal troubles, it makes it difficult to focus. You want your own priorities to be the focus," he says.
A president’s first 100 days in office have been an important symbolic marker since Franklin D. Roosevelt, who arrived in the White House during the Great Depression and enacted a host of reforms aimed at turning around the nation’s economy while maintaining popular support. It’s unclear how significant this period actually is in determining a presidency’s future: Abraham Lincoln later reversed his early support for slavery, and Jimmy Carter’s popular support dropped sharply after that initial period.
Nevertheless, observers agree that the first 100 days can help set an administration on a positive course.
“Leaders entering new roles can stumble badly and still recover. But it’s a whole lot easier if they don’t stumble in the first place. And that’s why the transition period matters so much,” wrote Michael D. Watkins, author of the expanded edition of "The First 90 Days," in Harvard Business Review in 2009.
To Martha Joynt Kumar, director of the White House Transition Project and a professor of political science at Maryland's Towson University, a successful transition allows incoming presidents and their teams to use the mandate they gained during the election to act on issues that are important to them.
“From [the] beginning, [George W. Bush] and his administration focused on their priority issues and did so at their tempo without being sidetracked by the agendas of others. By doing so, they were able to take advantage of the goodwill and interest the public extends to a president in the early weeks of an administration,” she wrote in a 2008 paper about presidential transition.
Having so many court cases to deal with means focusing on the issues may be a challenge for the Trump team. Cases involving incumbent presidents tend to be disruptive: Richard Nixon’s legal struggles dogged his administration and ultimately led to his resignation, while the Monica Lewinsky scandal drew focus during a significant part of Bill Clinton’s second term.
Being sworn in as president does not guarantee Trump immunity, either. His unofficial life is still open for scrutiny, a precedent established by the Supreme Court during Bill Clinton’s tenure, in a case in which former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones alleged that the president had made “sexual advances” on her.
Even if Trump had done nothing wrong, some suggest that the kind of inside information litigants would have access to could be embarrassing to the administration and hamper its political activities. In the upcoming Trump University fraud case, in particular, evidence of wrongdoing could provide the grounds for Congress to impeach the president, if it chose to.
One option would be for Trump to drop some of the lawsuits he has brought himself, and settle others, like the Trump University case, out of court. So far, however, he has been unwilling to do this.
Willingness to put the cases behind him may determine the scope of Trump's policy agenda going forward, however.
"If something intervenes ... you could miss an opportunity to begin to establish your legacy and fulfill the promises you made during the campaign," explains Professor Lewis, noting that, while presidents can certainly come back from early struggles, "There’s a window of opportunity at the beginning of an opportunity and you hate to not be able to take advantage of that."