Five legal headaches facing Trump
As he faces special counsel Robert Mueller’s wide-ranging investigation, Trump is also entangled in litigation over his refusal to divest his business interests and cases stemming from an alleged affair with a porn star and the $130,000 his personal lawyer reportedly paid her in hush money.
Legal experts say the number of lawsuits involving the president personally is unprecedented.
Josh Blackman, an associate professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston, noted the 1997 landmark Supreme Court decision that allowed a sexual harassment lawsuit to be brought against former President Clinton while in office.
In the majority ruling, Justice Stephen Breyer said only three sitting presidents in the nation’s history had been sued over a private action, noting that it “seems unlikely that a deluge of such litigation will ever engulf the President.”
“When the Supreme Court said these cases won’t be much of a distraction, they didn’t anticipate Donald Trump as president,” Blackman said.
Here’s a look at the cases dogging Trump.
The special investigator has threatened to subpoena Trump if he doesn’t agree to an interview in the Russia investigation.
Trump previously said he would love to sit down with Mueller, but has since backed off, calling the accusations of collusion between Russia and his campaign a “hoax” and the investigation a “witch hunt” on Twitter.
“There was no Collusion (it is a Hoax) and there is no Obstruction of Justice (that is a setup & trap). What there is is Negotiations going on with North Korea over Nuclear War, Negotiations going on with China over Trade Deficits, Negotiations on NAFTA, and much more. Witch Hunt!” he tweeted on Wednesday.
The tweets come after The New York Times obtained a list of Mueller’s questions for Trump. The questions largely focus on the president’s ties to Russia, whether he illegally tried to interfere with the investigation and whether he took steps to fire Mueller himself.
Blackman said Trump would be putting himself at risk if he ultimately agrees to talk under oath.
“It’s why his legal team is trying to keep Trump from talking to Mueller, because he’ll lie and then they can say he perjured himself under oath,” he said. “Clinton was impeached because he lied under oath.”
Trump is not likely to be indicted on criminal charges in the Mueller investigation, thanks to a Department of Justice policy against indicting a sitting president. But legal experts say a report recommending criminal charges could prove too difficult and embarrassing for Republicans to ignore.
Trump is entangled in the investigation federal prosecutors in Manhattan have launched against Cohen, his longtime personal lawyer. The FBI raided Cohen’s office and hotel room last month, and has been monitoring who he calls.
Investigators are said to be looking into the $130,000 Cohen paid porn star Stormy Daniels, who’s said she had an affair with Trump, and whether any campaign finance laws were violated. Investigators are also said to be looking for records related to the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Trump can be heard bragging about grabbing and kissing women without their consent, according to media reports. The FBI raids were launched in part by a referral from Mueller.
On Wednesday, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — the newest member of Trump’s legal team — said Trump repaid Cohen for the $130,000 payment to Daniels. But days later, Giuliani tried to do damage control by releasing a statement that did little to clarify his earlier remarks.
Legal experts say Giuliani may have been trying to keep Cohen from turning on Trump, since Trump has previously said he had no knowledge until recently about the payment.
Under New York Bar rules, according to Georgetown University law professor David Super, attorneys accused of misconduct can break attorney client-privilege to defend themselves.
Federal District Court Judge Kimba Wood has assigned a special master to review the materials seized from Cohen’s office and determine what’s protected under attorney-client privilege.
Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, filed a defamation lawsuit last week against Trump for mocking the sketch of the man she said threatened her to keep quiet about her alleged affair with the president.
Daniels is seeking in excess of $75,000 in damages from Trump, arguing that he knew his “false, disparaging statement would be read by people around the world” and that she would be “subjected to threats of violence, economic harm and reputational damage as a result.”
Super said Trump’s attorneys could easily settle with Daniels to make the case go away.
But Daniels has also sued Trump and Essential Consultants, the limited liability company Cohen set up to pay her, to get out of the nondisclosure agreement she signed before the 2016 presidential election. She later amended that lawsuit to include Cohen.
Daniels argues the agreement is invalid because Trump never signed it and that the $130,000 she was paid to keep quiet about the alleged affair exceeded federal limits on campaign donations.
A federal judge in California late last month granted Cohen and Trump’s request to put the case on hold for 90 days, finding it likely Cohen would be indicted on criminal charges in the federal investigation. Cohen has responded to Daniels’s lawsuit by citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The former contestant on the “The Apprentice” also sued Trump for defamation in January 2017 for calling her a liar after she publicly alleged he sexually assaulted her in 2007.
During the election, Zervos accused Trump of forcibly kissing her and grabbing her breasts in meetings after her appearance on the show. Trump has since denied those claims.
In March, a judge on the New York Supreme Court ruled the case could go forward. The Times reported this week that Zervos issued subpoenas for recordings of the reality show and for records of Trump’s stay at the Beverly Hills Hotel, where the alleged misconduct occurred.
Super said this case could be more damaging for Trump than the Daniels lawsuit if discovery and depositions in this case extend into the other women who have accused Trump of sexual harassment.
“Trump’s lawyers have a better chance of avoiding having to discuss other sexual encounters in the Stormy Daniels case,” he said.
Trump also faces two separate suits over his refusal to divest his business interests.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is leading a lawsuit filed against Trump last June by 200 congressional Democrats, arguing the president has violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bars the president from accepting gifts or payment from foreign governments without Congressional approval.
The lawmakers argue Trump will profit from a foreign state through his ownership of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., Trump World Tower in New York City and as executive producer of “The Apprentice,” in which he is contractually entitled to a percentage of the profits derived from licensing the show and related spin-offs to television networks overseas.
The District Court is scheduled to hear arguments in that case on June 7.
Maryland and the District of Columbia’s local government have filed their own emoluments lawsuit against the president, which a federal District Court judge in Maryland ruled in March could go forward. Trump asked the court this week to dismiss the case.
Court-watchers say these lawsuits are low stakes for the president, but could still turn up some embarrassing financial records.
Super said discovery could produce records that show Trump is not as wealthy as he indicated, that he’s dependent on foreign interests or that he made a quid pro quo deal for a policy decision.
“I don’t know if such evidence exists, but these lawsuits have the potential to bring it into the public eye and make it harder for his supporters to defend him,” he said.