Monday, June 5, 2023

Trump’s Legal Burden

Former US President Donald Trump faces multiple lawsuits. As president, he had legal immunity as well as a form of implied immunity. With that gone, Trump is having trouble getting top-grade lawyers to defend him against significant lawsuits in progress

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By Kenneth Tiven in Washington

Moderation and truthfulness are two behaviours rarely associated with Donald Trump, attitudes at the root of multiple lawsuits he faces. Ignoring or fighting lawsuits has been his hallmark for nearly five decades, yet it didn’t stop voters from electing him. Most of the lawsuits fall under three themes: financial wrongdoings, his role in the January 6, 2021 insurrection, and his alleged interference in the 2020 election. Trump has denied wrongdoing. As president of the United States, he had legal immunity. 

With that gone, Trump is having trouble getting top-grade lawyers to defend him against significant lawsuits in progress. His current legal team includes three relatively young female lawyers. One is a former host at far-right One America News, another a past general counsel for a parking garage company, and the third is an insurance lawyer who’s never had a federal case. They are not dissuaded by his behaviour and reputation for late or no pay on legal bills. That reputation scares off respected defense attorneys in the looming struggle with the National Archives and Department of Justice over his retaining classified documents.

A prominent Republican lawyer told The New York Times, “Everyone is saying no”. He spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential conversations. Jon Sale, a prominent Florida defense attorney who worked on the 1974  Watergate prosecution team, said he turned down Trump last week. “The Trump team needs a first-rate, highly experienced federal criminal practitioner. It’s not like a DUI (driving under the influence). It’s representing the former president of the United States—and maybe the next one—in what’s one of the highest-visibility cases ever”.

Nearly two dozen legal cases, perhaps more, confront Donald Trump or his companies. Trump’s issues reflect a man who has for decades dragged out cases until the opponent quit with no more energy or funding, a tactic adopted early in his real estate career. Taylor Budowich, a Trump spokesman, defended Trump’s legal team for the documents seizure in a near-perfect reflection of the boss saying. “President Trump is represented by some of the strongest attorneys in the country, and any suggestion otherwise is only driven by envy”. One is Evan Corcoran, a former Assistant United States Attorney specializing in civil litigation and white-collar criminal defense. Similarly, Jim Trusty says his 28 years as a prosecutor makes him an expert since “prosecutions of white-collar defendants, corporations and individuals can face the threat of exponentially higher monetary penalties and added jail time.” A lawyer who isn’t on the Trump team described other lawyers as “guys who just live to be around him, and mistakes get made. These guys just want to make him happy.”

“In olden days, he would tell firms (that) representing him was a benefit because they could advertise off it. Today it’s not the same,” said Michael Cohen, a former lawyer, and fixer for Trump convicted of tax evasion and lying to Congress in 2018. Cohen added that “Trump is always pushing the envelope, he rarely listens to sound legal advice, and he wants you to do things that are not appropriate, ethically or legally.”

A determined local prosecutor in Atlanta, Fulton County, Georgia, has a Grand Jury looking into how Trump pressured Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger to overturn the results. He did this in a recorded phone call, telling Raffensperger, “I just want to find 11,780 votes”. Trump’s election attorney and advisor, Rudy Giuliani, testified this week before a grand jury considering charges for Trump and Giuliani. Detroit voters are suing Trump and the Republican National Committee for threatening to overturn the election results in Michigan, arguing that the move would have disenfranchised Black voters in Wayne county. Trump has filed a motion to dismiss the case.

Multiple cases charge Trump for his role in the January 6 insurrection. Two allege that he undermined the counting of the electoral college votes. The rest accused him of inciting the riots, which caused physical and emotional harm to police officers. Eleven members of the US House of Representatives are jointly suing Trump, his attorney Rudy Giuliani and two militia groups—the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys—for conspiring to incite the violence at the Capitol. Ten more members of Congress are joining a NAACP lawsuit against Trump and Giuliani for conspiring to incite the US Capitol riot. These are civil suits. Additionally, California Rep. Eric Swalwell is suing Trump as are 12 police officers in three suits for physical and emotional injuries, accusing Trump and others of intentionally inciting the attack.

A civil suit regarding tax evasion by improperly setting property valuations caused Trump to refuse to answer, using the 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination more than 400 times. A criminal case of insurance fraud and off-the-books perks is against his chief financial officer, but only names the Trump company, not the boss. It goes to trial in October. A common principle in several lawsuits is the apparent Trump real estate practice of inflating the value of a property when borrowing money for purchases, but undervaluing the property for tax-paying purposes. The New York state attorney general is pursuing a civil suit in this area, while the district attorney in Westchester County is investigating similar behavior with a Trump-owned golf course.

The Washington DC attorney general is accusing Trump’s 2017 inauguration committee of misusing assets to profit the Trump family. An earlier allegation that the committee made improper payments to Trump’s DC hotel was dismissed by a judge. Mary Trump, Donald Trump’s niece, is suing him and his siblings for allegedly defrauding her out of inheritance money. Trump has moved to dismiss the lawsuit, with a decision pending. An anonymous group of plaintiffs accused Trump, three of his children and his company of misleading people to invest in bogus business opportunities. Turns out Trump was a paid spokesperson for one of those companies featured on his fake reality show, The Celebrity Apprentice.

Trump has also faced several accusations of sexual misconduct since he was elected president. A civil suit was filed by former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos who accused Trump of defamation after he said her allegations of sexually inappropriate behaviour were a part of Clinton’s campaign efforts to smear him. Zervos dropped the lawsuit in late 2021, but a similar defamation case is still ongoing. E Jean Carroll’s defamation suit accused Trump of raping her at a New York department store in the 1990s. In response, Trump accused Carroll of lying, saying she was “not my type”. Carroll is suing Trump for defamation. Trump has failed to get the case dismissed.

Other cases include one by retired Lt Col Alexander Vindman, a former top Ukraine expert in the Trump administration, who testified to Congress during Trump’s first impeachment. His suit claims Trump and several allies allegedly retaliated against him. This harassment ended Army service for both Vindman and his twin brother. Six protesters are sueing Trump after his then head of security, Keith Schiller, allegedly assaulted them during a demonstration outside Trump Tower in 2015. Trump gave a deposition for this case in October 2021. Trump’s former attorney, Cohen, is accusing Trump and the US government of sending him back to prison as a retaliatory measure after Cohen wrote a tell-all memoir about his work for Trump.

Early in his real estate career, Trump learned what you said was more important than what you did. He styled himself many times wealthier than he was. People believed his brand was as good as he bragged it was. His 1990 strategy when a billion dollars in loans came due was to claim the banks overlent. Unwilling to risk losing the Trump name on mortgaged properties, the banks rolled over, lowering their interest rates and extending payment deadlines. In a changing media environment with cable television and the emerging internet, he could reach the public without needing the mainstream press.

Trump recognized this approach was relevant to politics. In 2011, he attacked President Barrack Obama as not American-born, demanding a birth certificate. After a video clip about Trump’s sexual misconduct surfaced during his 2016 presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton, he hurled accusations of sexual misconduct against her husband, former President Bill Clinton. Magic and cons need misdirection to work. Trump learned this while dealing with an overbearing father. No surprise that these tactics occupied his four years as president. His attitude is whatever he believes is true is worth doing. It surfaced as the lie the 2020 election must have been stolen because he never loses.

—The writer has worked in senior positions at The Washington Post, NBC, ABC and CNN and also consults for several Indian channels

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