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From Bankruptcies to Trump U:|The Effect of Trump’s Legal Woes on Politics

SAN DIEGO (CN) — Three weeks after Tuesday's election the first of three lawsuits against Trump University is slated to go to trial. Trump's trail of litigation — 3,500 lawsuits by USA Today's count — is unprecedented for any presidential candidate and has remained a central theme of his candidacy and the reporting on his run for office.

While the electorate does not yet know who will be elected the 45th president, legal and political science experts talked to Courthouse News about what Trump's campaign means for American politics going forward and, especially, what a Trump presidency could mean for the executive branch of government.

The candidate's approach to a challenge, particularly a legal one, was on display at a rally in San Diego this past May, when Trump told a crowd of thousands of supporters not what he would do to "Make America Great Again," but why a local federal court judge was biased against him.

It was an issue Trump had brought up before and had been touched on by moderators during Republican candidate debates, but at the San Diego rally Trump doubled down on his attack of U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel who is presiding over two class actions against Trump's now-defunct real estate school Trump University.

In the days following the San Diego rally, Trump repeated in several interviews — including ones with CNN, CBS and The Wall Street Journal — there was a conflict because of Curiel's Mexican heritage and Trump's campaign promise to "build a wall" along the U.S.-Mexico border. He even called for the judge to recuse himself, though Trump's lawyers never formally filed the request.

It wasn't until major Republican Party leaders — including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio — called on Trump to cease discussing the case and Curiel's ethnicity, did Trump issue a statement saying he wouldn't talk it anymore.

But the issue had already been raised, mostly by Trump himself. Trump University officially became a campaign issue and has remained one up until Tuesday's election.

Trump's Litigation Trail

Christopher Lewis Peterson, a law professor at University of Utah, wrote an academic paper in September outlining how the fraud allegations against Donald Trump's real estate school rise to the level of impeachable offenses if he's elected president.

Peterson, who's spent his career working on consumer-protection issues and years at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in Washington, said in a phone interview that just because the Trump University cases are civil and not criminal does not mean the allegations should be disregarded.

"Sometimes people who aren't carefully considering the seriousness of this case think that because it's civil, no crime occurred. And that's simply not the case," Peterson said.

The law professor pointed out civil fraud and racketeering claims, like the ones Trump faces over Trump University, are different from criminal claims only in it shifts of the burden of proof.


Trump faces two separate class actions in San Diego's federal court — Low v. Trump University and Cohen v. Trump — in addition to a third case filed by New York's attorney general. Former students rely on essentially the same claims of fraud, saying they spent upwards of $35,000 to learn insider real estate secrets from instructors purported to be handpicked by Trump. It turned out Trump had little involvement in Trump University and his attorneys said the school relied on "sales puffery common in advertising" to capitalize on Trump's celebrity and name brand.

Peterson said Trump's brand was used to "woo people into spending their life savings" and the presidential nominee's issues with Curiel don't hold water "since the evidence indicates he likely defrauded" students.

"There's no credible argument the legal system wasn't working. Advertising materials and evidence said he would handpick instructors and then he testified he didn't. He lied to people in order to facilitate taking their life savings and should be held accountable," Peterson said.

A court document filed recently in the Low case to seems to signal that Trump's attorneys are scrambling to do damage control over the comments lodged at Curiel — and the plaintiffs suing him — that were publicly decried by Republican leaders. Trump's lead attorney in the case, Daniel Petrocelli, asked Curiel to issue a blanket order excluding any statements made by or about the presidential nominee during his stump for President.

Peterson said its "improbable" Curiel would grant that request, as the comments would need to be considered on a case-by-case basis. And in their response papers, the plaintiffs argue Curiel should deny Trump's request precisely because he "chose not to identify a single statement he wishes to exclude."

The law professor said Trump's legal issues speak to his "honesty and how he treats people who have supported him" and will not disappear even if he gets elected.

"The notion there would be a sitting president who could be found to have violated RICO [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] is unprecedented. It's astonishing that we could even come close to that happening," Peterson said.

"The takeaway is when the dust settles on this case and the election, we as a country need to take the nomination process and process of vetting our candidates much more seriously. If a candidate has pending charges of fraud or racketeering that might be a good reason to move on to somebody else," Peterson said.

Another law professor, Jonathan Lipson from Temple University, has studied Trump's casinos and the unprecedented four bankruptcies he filed in relation to the drowning business venture. Lipson's interest was piqued when he read a New York Times article on Trump's casinos but said he wanted to know what happened to the employees. He found after analyzing documents from the Casino Control Commission, Trump's Atlantic City casinos did far worse compared with other New Jersey casinos. But while 900 employees at each of Trump's casinos lost their jobs, he took home on average $3.2 million in cash.

"He's not shy about this, he's bragged he took a lot of money out of the casinos," Lipson said. "He's so compelling because he appeals to American workers, but if you support him because you think he will save your jobs from a foreign threat, you should reconsider. He borrowed way too much money, and the truth is he probably wasn't a very effective negotiator during the bankruptcy proceedings. You see this pattern that might leave a lot of his supporters very disappointed if that's what he does when he's president."

Lipson said Trump's election stump has been largely based on his success as a businessman, but if the American electorate uses his casino venture — and even Trump University — as a gauge of Trump's success, they would come up short.

"When Trump says he's a good businessman, what he means is he's good at taking a lot of money for himself. He took enormous amounts of money even though he left his investors high and dry," Lipson said.

Lipson said Trump's appeal could stem from his aggressive use of the legal system.

"The thing about Trump and law that is interesting is he's a big user of the legal system and he's very shrewd and aggressive about pushing the boundaries of the system," Lipson said. "The same is true of his bankruptcies and taxes. He's appealing to some people who like aggressive leaders."

For Pepperdine University political science professor Jason Blakely, Trump's politicization of the Trump University litigation shows he is "willing to call into question a certain set of procedures and branches of government."

As for Trump's request to keep election fodder out of Curiel's courtroom, it "surprised political scientists," Blakely said.

"He's the most able politician in being able to drive bias in the news cycle. Trump has been able to bury what he says not by retracting what he says but by saying something new," Blakely said. "He's created zones of unaccountability around his language. That's what's striking about this request: he's trying to essentially create unaccountability around his language in the courts."

Trump's attempt to equate Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's email scandal to his countless lawsuits and "shoddy deals" is an attempt to "wash him of any responsibility," Blakely said.

While many pundits and political experts thought Trump's litigation trail and corruption accusations would make Trump unelectable during the primary, Blakely said that hasn't happened in large part because Trump's a "master teller of his own story."

"He's a tough-made model of private sector success, which is how he presents himself — as a master of entrepreneurial spirit and grit. But that's a bad narrative because there are parts of his life that don't fit that narrative," Blakely said.

Even though Trump has said on the campaign trail he'd use his executive powers in ways presidents before haven't, Blakely said no one really knows if Trump would act on those promises if elected President.

"He says a bunch of things that ring alarm bells," Blakely said. "Trump verbally is willing to blur the lines between the executive and the judiciary. Is he going to continue to try to influence the courts? How much of that will actually play out in terms of judicial appointments and using the presidential pulpit to discredit judges?"

Voters will find out the answer to that question after Tuesday — if Trump wins the election, of course.

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