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Donald Trump's legal team is trying to exclude any statements made by or about their client during the presidential campaign from a trial over now-defunct Trump University. (Photo: Daniel Huizinga/flickr/cc)

President-Elect Trump Heads to Office with 'Litigation Cloud Over His Head'

'Certainly no presidential candidate in modern times has potentially come to the office of president with such a litigation cloud hanging over his head'

Deirdre Fulton

President-elect Donald Trump is facing not only a divided electorate but also multiple legal battles, one of which heads to court just two days after his upset victory over Hillary Clinton.

On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel holds a pre-trial hearing in a class-action lawsuit over the now-defunct Trump University. The trial, at which Trump could testify, is set to begin November 28.

The 2010 lawsuit, which Reuters notes is one of three over the business venture, "was filed on behalf of students who say they were lured by false promises to pay up to $35,000 to learn Trump's real estate investing 'secrets' from his 'hand-picked' instructors. Trump owned 92 percent of Trump University and had control over all major decisions, the students' court papers say."

Trump University "playbooks," unsealed in June, exposed how employees were instructed to "[prey] upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money," as one former sales manager put it.

Indiana-born Curiel, who is presiding over two of the three cases, was this summer the target of racist vitriol from Trump, who said the judge should recuse himself based on his "Mexican heritage"—which Trump said presented a conflict of interest due to the candidate's own repeated vows to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. 

The Associated Press reported of Thursday's hearing:

Among the flurry of requests from both sides is a highly unusual petition by Trump's legal team to exclude any statements made by or about their client during the presidential campaign.

The request would apply to Trump's tweets, a video of him making sexually predatory comments about women, his tax history, revelations about his private charitable foundation, and public criticisms about Curiel.

Reuters adds:

In addition, the celebrity-businessman's lawyers want to exclude evidence of instructors involved in bankruptcy proceedings, and the Better Business Bureau's ratings of Trump University, along with complaints it received.

Trump's lawyers argue the information is irrelevant to the jury and prejudicial to the case. Lawyers for the students disagree. In court papers, they claim that statements by the former Republican nominee would help jurors as they weigh Trump's credibility and whether he and his venture were deceptive.

Meanwhile, other cases are pending. Vanity Fair reported:

The Trump University case isn't the only legal battle facing Trump as he prepares to take over the White House. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who filed another suit against Trump University in 2013, is currently investigating the hometown billionaire's namesake charity, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, for alleged "self-dealing" and other violations of the tax code governing nonprofit organizations. Last month, the attorney general's office ordered the Trump Foundation to cease fund-raising after finding the charity in violation of New York law. And Schneiderman's office isn't backing down now in the wake of Trump's victory, either. "The Trump University litigation continues to move through the appellate process," spokesperson Amy Spitalnick, told Politico in a statement Wednesday.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is also looking into one of Trump's closest aides, Paul Manafort, and his business ties to Russia. (Both Manafort and the Trump campaign have strenuously denied any wrongdoing.) According to a public letter from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, the bureau has been withholding "explosive information" linking Trump and his top advisers to the Russian government.

And the Daily Beast adds to the tally:

Members of Trump's golf course in Jupiter, Florida, are currently suing the flaxen-haired businessman for $2.4 million for taking fees and dues while allegedly blocking admission to the actual club. A former employee of the same club brought a lawsuit last month, alleging she was unlawfully fired after reporting sexual harassment by a coworker.

"This is an extremely unusual situation," Stephen Kaufman, who specializes in political and election law, told Bloomberg. "Certainly no presidential candidate in modern times has potentially come to the office of president with such a litigation cloud hanging over his head."

While sitting presidents are shielded from litigation over acts made in an official capacity, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that presidents can still be sued for events that happened before they took office or are unrelated to their presidential duties.

"Taking the office would not protect Mr. Trump from lawsuits that have been filed against him already or lawsuits that could be filed against him for civil matters that arose before he became President," Kaufman said, before acknowledging that "there would be a mountain of logistical issues in trying to pursue" such claims.

Still, should the Trump University case not turn in the president-elect's favor—and as the San Diego Union-Tribune points out, jury composition will be an important factor—the implications could be serious.

As University of Utah law professor Christopher L. Peterson argued in a recent analysis (pdf): "In the United States, it is illegal for businesses to use false statements to convince consumers to purchase their services. The evidence indicates that Trump University used a systemic pattern of fraudulent representations to trick thousands of families into investing in a program that can be argued was a sham."

And, Peterson continued: "Fraud and racketeering are serious crimes that legally rise to the level of impeachable acts."

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