SAN DIEGO — Attorneys for President-elect Donald Trump went to court Thursday to ask that a civil fraud suit against Trump scheduled to begin in less than three weeks be delayed, a reminder of the unusual complications facing Trump as he shifts from businessman to commander in chief.
Trump’s attorneys said he will be too busy with the presidential transition to participate in the Nov. 28 trial involving his defunct real estate seminar program, Trump University. They asked that the trial be postponed until February or March, after he has taken office.
They made their request before Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the jurist Trump harshly criticized during the campaign as biased because of his Mexican heritage.
Curiel expressed concern about the wisdom of a delay given that Trump will assume the presidency Jan. 20. Curiel said he will probably issue a ruling by Monday.
The hearing came just two days after Trump’s victory, reflecting the continuing legal challenges facing an incoming president whose businesses are the subject of multiple pending civil suits.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” Trump attorney Daniel Petrocelli told Curiel, noting that never before has a U.S. president or president-elect come to court under similar circumstances.
Later, Petrocelli told reporters that holding a trial during Trump’s presidency would be better than during the intensive transition period. He called the case a “very difficult circumstance for a sitting president — more so, I would say, for a president-elect, because he’s turning, right now as we speak, to a mountain of challenges in front of him, to get himself up to speed.”
The California Trump University case is one of two class-action fraud suits filed by former customers of the real estate seminar program. The former customers say they were misled by advertisements promising that Trump had hand-picked instructors for the program and that they would learn Trump’s personal tricks for real estate success.
Trump has said in depositions that he did not choose the instructors, many of whose names and faces he could not recall.
Trump has said most customers were satisfied with the experience, citing positive customer surveys submitted by seminar attendees. His attorneys have predicted that he will prevail in court.
Trump University became an issue in the campaign when Trump’s rivals in the Republican primary and later Democrat Hillary Clinton cited it in attacking Trump as a scam artist.
Trump vehemently defended the business during campaign rallies. His attack on Curiel became a symbol of his tendency to lash out at people, and it drew sharp criticism, including from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who termed the allegation the “textbook definition of a racist comment.”
Trump also said during the campaign that he looked forward to the trial.
“They ought to look into Judge Curiel, because what Judge Curiel is doing is a total disgrace,” Trump had told supporters at a rally in San Diego in May. “Okay? But we will come back in November. Wouldn’t that be wild if I am president and come back and do a civil case?”
From the bench Thursday, Curiel appeared unruffled by the unusual nature of the hearing, patiently engaging with both sides and referring to Trump respectfully as “the president-elect.”
Curiel proposed potentially having Trump testify by video to make the trial easier on him, but also urged that he settle with former students suing over the real estate seminars.
Though Trump has boasted that he never settles lawsuits, Petrocelli, an attorney for Trump, expressed interest: “I can tell you right now: I am all ears, your honor,” he said.
Petrocelli told reporters later that a trial risked further inflaming post-election tensions in the country.
“This has been a gut-wrenching campaign, as everybody knows, and the nation is just beginning the long healing process,” he said. “And I think the last thing we need right now is to have a trial about events that occurred six years ago or seven years ago, in which Mr. Trump — President-elect Trump — is a personal defendant in matters completely unrelated to the momentous obligations that he now needs to deal with.”
Also Thursday, Curiel rejected a request by Trump’s attorneys to prohibit the jury from hearing about Trump’s campaign-trail comments, including his attacks on the judge. Curiel called the request vague but said he might bar specific testimony at trial.
Trump’s attorneys argued that his campaign speeches, tweets and other public statements were “irrelevant” and “highly prejudicial.” They also asked Curiel to exclude discussion of other negative topics that came out during the campaign — including allegations about his “personal conduct,” and information about how Trump ran his personal charity, the Trump Foundation.
A president is not shielded from civil litigation for actions taken before he took office or unrelated to his presidential duties, a precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit filed against then-
President Bill Clinton. Clinton was required to sit for a deposition in the matter but he settled with Jones before the case reached trial.
But the court also said a trial judge, in scheduling, may show some deference to a president’s demanding schedule and the burdens of the office, said Duquesne University President Ken Gormley, who wrote a book on the Clinton case.
Gormley said there were few historical parallels for Trump’s legal entanglements because no president has been so immersed in the world of business before his election.
“You just have to start from the proposition that he’s like any other citizen for this purpose,” Gormley said. “People have claims against him, and those preexist him being in office. There seems to be no question they can proceed.”
Among other suits, Trump faces litigation in connection to celebrity chef José Andrés, who halted plans to open a restaurant at Trump’s new hotel in Washington over the Republican’s claim that many Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists.
Trump University also faces a separate action in New York filed by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. A court of appeals in New York ruled in March that the case could proceed, but Trump’s attorneys have appealed the ruling.
Trump has said he will win in court and then restart the program, which has not been in operation since 2010.