As president-elect Donald Trump prepares to assume the nation’s highest office, unresolved lawsuits threaten to set the tone for his presidency.
On Friday, President-elect Trump’s lawyers announced a $25 million settlement on one of the most prominent cases the business mogul has faced this year – a case in which plaintiffs claim that they were defrauded by Trump University.
If Mr. Trump had to stand trial in the Trump University case scheduled for late November, it would have been the first time in history that a president-elect gave testimony in a lawsuit. On Friday, Trump’s lawyers told the federal judge involved in the case that Trump is currently too busy with political demands to stand trial. What kind of precedent does this set for Trump’s administration?
“Presidents are normally granted some degree of immunity to civil litigation while they are president,” says University of Miami political science professor George Gonzalez to The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “This is to prevent them from getting bogged down in court while they should be focusing on political matters.”
This degree of immunity means that if the lawsuits aren’t settled now, they may not see the light of day for four to eight years, say legal experts. Political science observers say that this puts the ball in Trump’s court where litigation is concerned.
The lawsuits against Trump University first surfaced years ago, after former students alleged that the school misled and defrauded them. Some former instructors have also claimed that their function was not primarily to teach, but rather to sell costly seminars to students at the university.
The allegations of fraud have dogged Trump throughout the election season, leading the Republican candidate to claim that in such a politicized climate, he would be unable to receive a fair trial.
After his victory over Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton, Trump’s lawyers attempted to delay the trial, originally scheduled for Nov. 28, until after the president-elect’s nomination. Before that time, they said, Trump will be too busy learning the presidential ropes to engage in litigation.
"President-elect Trump must receive daily security briefings, make executive appointments – ultimately, thousands – and establish relationships with appointees, members of Congress, governors, and foreign leaders," Trump’s lawyers said earlier this month in a filing to delay the lawsuit. "He must also develop important policy priorities."
On Friday, Trump’s lawyers announced that had an a settlement on the three class-action lawsuits. The president-elect will pay up $25 million to the former Trump University students. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman originally estimated that students were defrauded to the tune of about $40 million.
“As Attorney General Schneiderman has long said, he has always been open to a settlement that fairly compensates the many victims of Trump University who have been waiting years for a resolution,” said a spokesperson for Attorney General Schneiderman in a statement.
Trump’s lawyers also dropped a separate lawsuit this week in Florida against Palm Beach County over commercial flights over his Mar-a-Largo property.
Trump is unusually litigious in his private life, political experts say. Several times during his campaign, Trump expressed his willingness to engage in legal action against members of the press and against women who accused him publicly of sexual harassment.
“The thing that’s worth keeping in mind is that if you have an individual who has spent an unusual amount of time engaged in lawsuits,” says University of Chicago Booth School of Business professor John Rollert in a phone interview with the Monitor, “one has to ask themselves, how might that shape his view of the law as well as the types of judges he is liable to appoint?”
For example, Professor Rollert says that Trump has repeatedly spoken of loosening libel laws to make it easier for public figures to sue the press.
While it would be highly unusual for Trump to continue to spend as much time in court while he is in office as he did while he was a business mogul, the president-elect is unusual in that his name is his brand, observes Dr. Gonzalez.
Whether or not Trump stays out of court while he serves as president, experts say that the Paula Jones case during Bill Clinton’s presidency (she sued him for sexual harassment) is evidence that the legal system does occasionally allow civil cases to proceed against the president during his or her administration.
Nevertheless, some experts say that if Trump is prudent, he won't lean on lawsuits during his presidency to resolve conflicts.
“Going through the courts is an oppositional leadership style,” says Southern Methodist University communication and public affairs professor Stephanie Martin. “My hope is that he will try to persuade the public and Congress and use the institutional powers of the presidency to win people to his side [instead of engaging in lawsuits]."