WASHINGTON (AP) — As a businessman, Donald Trump has kept the courts busy. That’s hardly likely to change when he enters the Oval Office, creating an unusual and potentially serious problem for a sitting president.
Only a handful of presidents have undergone legal depositions during their terms, and even fewer have become embroiled in private lawsuits. Trump is poised to join that small club.
Just last week, the president-elect sat for a deposition in a lawsuit involving his Washington hotel, and he is still tied up in legal disputes that are to proceed after Inauguration Day. Trump is also under investigation by the New York attorney general over whether he used his charity for personal benefit.
Those are only some of the pending matters.
While Trump has said he will turn over management of his company to his adult sons, he has left open the possibility he will keep not only an ownership interest but the legal liability that accompanies it. He is expected to give more details about stepping away at a news conference on Wednesday.
The details are important because the closer Trump remains to his business while in office, the more he makes himself and the company targets for litigation. Those attacks could include lawsuits brought by deep-pocketed political opponents who could use the courts as one more battleground to fight his administration.
“He is going to be not just a litigation magnet, but a litigation vortex that sucks in every political and personal adversary he has,” said Norman Eisen, the Obama administration chief White House ethics counselor from 2009 through 2011. Eisen has encouraged Trump to sell his assets and put the cash in a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest and legal pitfalls.
Given the heated political climate, Eisen said Trump could end up on the other end of a strategy that one of his advisers, billionaire PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, used in a civil privacy lawsuit against Gawker Media LLC, bankrolling someone else’s lawsuit to further a personal or political agenda.
Under constitutional immunity protections, Trump can’t be sued over official acts in the Oval Office. But he could be named in lawsuits for personal actions or those involving his businesses. And the presidency may offer no protection from lawsuits that started before he took office.
“Prior litigation related to his business will not be so easy to dismiss,” said Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University. “Those types of cases are generally not covered by immunity rules.”
That raises the prospect of President Trump answering questions under oath in more depositions. Presidents and other high-ranking public officials aren’t exempt from them, Turley said, as Bill Clinton discovered in the Paula Jones case that led to his 1998 impeachment by the House of Representatives.
The danger for Trump is heightened given the sprawling nature of his business, the Trump Organization. The president-elect owns or controls some 500 companies involved in hotels, golf resorts, office buildings and condominium towers in several countries including Scotland, Ireland, Dubai and Indonesia.