Donald Trump's Lawyers Are Trying to Erase Him from the Trump U Trial, And I'm Calling Shenanigans

His attorneys want to take the "Trump" out of "Trump University."
Publish date:
October 24, 2016
politics, Donald Trump

Should Donald Trump be allowed to erase himself from the Trump University trial, scheduled to start on November 28 after years of back and forth? His legal team is certainly hoping so — they just filed a motion to "exclude evidence and argument" about Donald Trump from the proceedings, including tweets, campaign speeches, statements from rallies, debate transcripts, comments from surrogates, evidence of other litigation, "personal conduct accusations," and basically anything else about the candidate. Donald Trump, the personal embodiment of the Trump brand, wants to disappear himself from the case.

I find this legal situation fascinating — this case is obviously being followed even more closely than other suits targeting Donald Trump in the past because of his position of prominence. His attorneys are arguing that the increased media attention could create a prejudicial atmosphere for the jury, which might base its decision on things like "personal conduct" rather than the facts at hand.

This isn't a trial about whether Donald Trump is a terrible human being. It's not a trial about whether Donald Trump committed sexual harassment, sexual assault, or any other alleged crimes. It's a trial with two very specific questions: Did Trump University defraud students by claiming that instructors were "hand-picked" by Donald Trump and that the defendant was substantively involved when that was not in fact the case? And did it misrepresent itself as a university when it in fact was not an institution of higher learning?

To answer that question, a jury needs to review evidence that's directly associated with Trump University, but does it need to review evidence about Donald Trump, the person?

I think, in a sense, Trump's attorneys are right: There's a reason there are rules regarding the admissibility of evidence, and Donald Trump is entitled to a fair day in court just like everyone else. But in another sense, they're wrong — this motion overreached the scope of the case considerably, and is clearly an attempt at suppressing information that actually is materially relevant to the case in a sweeping, decisive document.

The motion's scope is too broad, in my opinion, and a fair hearing in the trial must include some of the information that Trump's attorneys are insisting is prejudicial.

Material comments

The first is pretty obvious: In many public appearances, Trump has made comments about the case or the parties involved, and these comments are absolutely materially relevant. Take, for example, his tweets about the judge:

His accusations of bias are important to address in the context of the trial — he's the one who brought it up. If he thinks the judge is biased, he's going to argue that the outcome of the case is invalid as well. Similarly, members of the jury should be made aware of comments like this one:

But there's something else going on here as well.

Brand recognition

Trump University wasn't just a "university" (and it wasn't even that, because the New York State Education Department told the organization to stop calling itself a university). It was specifically an aspirational ideal, a product packaged and sold as part of the Trump brand — Donald Trump has an established pattern of leveraging, and licensing, his name as a lifestyle signifier.

The selling point here was Trump himself — indeed, that's at the heart of the case, which asks why Trump University represented itself as an organization closely helmed by Trump when in fact that was not the case. People weren't just buying real estate seminars: They were buying a chance to touch Donald Trump's fame. They feel defrauded not just because the seminars were garbage, but because they found out Trump wasn't even involved with them.

That makes his comments about the case, the university, and surrounding issues materially relevant: He is the spokesman of the Trump brand, and what he says about Trump University and other Trump brands matters.

Take, for example, his approving retweets of testimonials.

Or his tweets proclaiming that Trump U was a legitimate operation, according to the Better Business Bureau.

Or his lengthy statement about Judge Curiel and the handling of the case in the media, which appears on Trump's campaign website — and would be excluded under the motion as a "[comment] about this case or the Court." It includes direct refutations of claims made in the court filing itself, as well as the media.

Trump made the decision to brand the university with his name, and to make claims that he was associated with his operations. That means that his comments about the university and the trial are both pretty important. If he was involved with the university, this information could be used to contextualize the claim that Trump didn't have a hand in the operation's activities. If he wasn't involved, his comments might not be relevant — but this admission would also support one of the two points made by the plaintiffs, that Trump wasn't associated with the organization bearing, and trading on, his name.

Filing motions like these is routine — both sides have some things they'd like to hide in court. The validity of such motions is variable. Trump's attorneys are seeking to suppress information that would appear quite relevant in both this and other motions, and that matters, because jurors should have this information to hand when weighing the facts of the case. If I were a juror, I would want to know these things, which strike me as relevant rather than prejudicial.

Information about his conduct, as repugnant as that information is, isn't relevant — this is not about what we think about Donald Trump as a person. The motion craftily attempts to suppress relevant information by burying it in a lengthy list of potential evidence that is perhaps not so relevant, which is a pretty slick play.

The silver lining

The trial was deliberately scheduled to fall between Election Day and Inauguration Day — but if the apocalypse does happen on November 8, Donald Trump doesn't get to weasel out of this one. While the President of the United States enjoys legal immunity from civil suits, it only applies to actions associated with official duties.

Which is a good thing, because the Trump U case isn't the only Trump-related litigation in the works. On December 16, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York will be holding a status conference on another Trump case: a lawsuit seeking damages for a woman who claims Donald Trump raped her at age 13.