When comedian Bill Maher offered $5 million to Donald Trump if he could prove he wasn’t the son of an orangutan, Trump did something he’s done many times before: He sued.
During Trump’s three-decade business career, the president-elect has been named in more than 4,000 suits, either as a plaintiff or defendant, in everything from branding and contract disputes to defamation cases, according to a report in USA Today last summer. Close to half the cases involve gamblers who hadn’t paid their debts at Trump’s casinos.
“The number of lawsuits that may now be in existence, I think, are way ahead of anything we might ever again expect of any president of the United States,” says Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University Law School.
Last week Trump agreed to do something he had vowed not to do, when he settled a series of suits involving his real estate seminar Trump University for $25 million, just as the case was about to go to trial. The program was accused of defrauding participants after promising to teach them the secrets of a successful real estate career.
“I settled the Trump University lawsuit for a small fraction of the potential award because as President I have to focus on our country,” Trump tweeted over the weekend.
In fact, the sheer number of outstanding lawsuits that Trump and his businesses face could become a major problem during his presidency, says Saikrishna Prakash, a University of Virginia law professor and an expert on the separation of powers. As many as 75 civil suits involving Trump are pending, Prakash notes.
“The problem that we face with Mr. Trump is that he’s got so many lawsuits that he could very well be distracted from taking care of the nation’s business by a concern with his personal finances,” Prakash says.
In an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Prakash recently proposed that Congress approve a law delaying lawsuits during a president’s administration, much as it delays civil suits against members of the armed forces during their service.
Prakash acknowledges that such a law might be on uncertain legal ground.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton argued that a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by Paula Jones should be delayed until he left office. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously disagreed, and the case set in motion a series of events that eventually led to Clinton’s impeachment.
“The court predicted it wouldn’t really disrupt the president or take too much of his time. And I suppose that was possible in that case, but it turned out to be totally wrong,” Prakash says.
But delaying lawsuits until a president is out of office raises questions about fairness, NYU’s Gillers says.
“If a plaintiff is suing Trump, he or she has a right to a day in court and making that person wait four years or three years or two years for relief is simply unacceptable,” he says.
Even as the Supreme Court allowed private lawsuits against presidents to proceed, it also gave lower courts significant discretion to ease the burden on the White House if possible, Gillers notes.
For example, presidents can ask for short delays in suits when the nation’s business demands it. They can also testify in depositions, instead of having to appear in court in person, Gillers says.
“Yes, it’s a distraction, but the president — although president 24 hours a day, seven days a week — does do other things. He does have a private life, and so he does simply have to factor this in to his private life,” Gillers adds.
The Supreme Court’s ruling applies only to federal courts, and state courts could choose to make life a lot more difficult for the president. That’s unlikely, Gillers says, but as with so much else about the Trump presidency, the outcome is unpredictable, and Americans could one day see their president testifying in a court trial.