USA TODAY analysis finds 3,500 legal actions by and against Trump, fighting everyone from the government to the vodka makers
Donald Trump is a fighter, famous for legal skirmishes over everything from his golf courses to his tax bills to Trump University. But until now, it hasn’t been clear precisely how litigious he is and what that might portend for a Trump presidency.
An exclusive USA TODAY analysis of legal filings across the United States finds that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and his businesses have been involved in at least 3,500 legal actions in federal and state courts during the past three decades. They range from skirmishes with casino patrons to million-dollar real estate suits to personal defamation lawsuits.
The sheer volume of lawsuits is unprecedented for a presidential nominee. No candidate of a major party has had anything approaching the number of Trump’s courtroom entanglements.
Just since he announced his candidacy a year ago, at least 70 new cases have been filed, about evenly divided between lawsuits filed by him and his companies and those filed against them. And the records review found at least 50 civil lawsuits remain open even as he moves toward claiming the nomination at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in seven weeks. On Tuesday, court documents were released in one of the most dramatic current cases, filed in California by former students accusing Trump University of fraudulent and misleading behavior.
The legal actions provide clues to the leadership style the billionaire businessman would bring to bear as commander in chief. He sometimes responds to even small disputes with overwhelming legal force. He doesn’t hesitate to deploy his wealth and legal firepower against adversaries with limited resources, such as homeowners. He sometimes refuses to pay real estate brokers, lawyers and other vendors.
As he campaigns, Trump often touts his skills as a negotiator. The analysis shows that lawsuits are one of his primary negotiating tools. He turns to litigation to distance himself from failing projects that relied on the Trump brand to secure investments. As USA TODAY previously reported, he also uses the legal system to haggle over his property tax bills. His companies have been involved in more than 100 tax disputes, and the New York State Department of Finance has obtained liens on Trump properties for unpaid tax bills at least three dozen times.
And despite his boasts on the campaign trail that he “never” settles lawsuits, for fear of encouraging more, he and his businesses have settled with plaintiffs in at least 100 cases reviewed by USA TODAY. Most involve people who say they were physically injured at Trump properties, with settlements that range as high as hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Alan Garten, general counsel for the Trump Organization, said in an interview that the number and tenor of the court cases is the “cost of doing business” and on par with other companies of a similar size. "I think we have far less litigation of companies of our size," he said.
However, even by those measures, the number of cases in which Trump is involved is extraordinary. For comparison, USA TODAY analyzed the legal involvement for five top real-estate business executives: Edward DeBartolo, shopping-center developer and former San Francisco 49ers owner; Donald Bren, Irvine Company chairman and owner; Stephen Ross, Time Warner Center developer; Sam Zell, Chicago real-estate magnate; and Larry Silverstein, a New York developer famous for his involvement in the World Trade Center properties.
To maintain an apples-to-apples comparison, only actions that used the developers' names were included. The analysis found Trump has been involved in more legal skirmishes than all five of the others — combined.
The USA TODAY analysis included an examination of legal actions for and against Trump and the more than 500 businesses he lists on the personal financial disclosure he filed with the Federal Election Commission. USA TODAY also reviewed five depositions in which Trump sat for 22 hours of sworn testimony. This report is based on those legal filings as well as interviews with dozens of his legal adversaries.
A handful of the ongoing cases involve local or state government entities, with the possibility of personal legal disputes between the president of the United States and other branches of government if Trump is elected. For instance, the Trump team has filed a lawsuit seeking a state ethics investigation of the New York attorney general. The suit was filed in response to an ongoing fraud investigation into Trump University by the attorney general, an elected state official.
And at a campaign rally in San Diego last Friday, Trump railed against a federal judge overseeing an ongoing lawsuit against Trump University. Trump said Judge Gonzalo Curiel "happens to be, we believe Mexican," and called him a "hater of Donald Trump" who "railroaded" him. Born in Indiana, Curiel was appointed to the federal bench by President Obama. The judge on Tuesday unsealed hundreds of pages of documents in the case.
The trial is set for November — just after Election Day.
Trump’s history of legal actions provides clues about his style as a leader and manager. While he is quick to take credit for anything associated with his name, he is just as quick to distance himself from failures and to place responsibility on others. In one lawsuit — filed against him by condo owners who wanted their money back for a Fort Lauderdale condo that was never built — he testified in a sworn deposition: “Well, the word ‘developing,’ it doesn't mean that we're the developers.”
At times, he and his companies refuse to pay even relatively small bills. An engineering firm and a law firm are among several who filed suits against Trump companies saying they weren't paid for their work. In a 2011 deposition tied to a dispute over his deal with Van Heusen menswear, he said he abruptly decided not to sign a check to a firm that helped broker the deal, after 11 consecutive quarterly payments, because "I don't feel that these people did very much, if anything, with respect to this deal.”
The number of lawsuits raises questions about potential conflicts and complications if Trump does win the White House. Dozens of cases remain unresolved, about half in which he is the plaintiff. It raises the possibility of individuals being sued by the president of the United States, or suing him, in non-governmental disputes.
Under the law, Trump wouldn’t get special advantages as the plaintiff — or protections as a defendant. Under long-standing conflict-of-interest rules, as a plaintiff he couldn’t improperly benefit from governmental knowledge. He also wouldn’t get immunity from civil litigation that stemmed from events prior to taking office.
Together, the lawsuits help address this question: How would Trump’s record in business translate into leading the most powerful government on the globe — a task that involves managing a $4 trillion annual budget, overseeing 1.8 million civilian federal employees and commanding the most powerful armed forces in the world?
While leaders who had business careers sometimes have been elected to the White House — oilmen George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, for instance, and mining engineer Herbert Hoover — the jobs have some fundamental differences, political scientists and presidential historians say. A president can't rule by fiat, as some CEOs do. And getting things done in government often involves building coalitions among legislators and foreign leaders who have their own priorities and agendas.
“He’s operating as his own boss and a CEO-on-steroids mentality, where you snap a finger and things get done,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who has written biographies of Franklin Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt and edited Ronald Reagan’s diaries. “But a lot of good governance is on learning how to build proper coalitions and how to have patience with the glacial pace of government, and you’re forced to abide by laws at all times. "
Brinkley sees "a lot of warning signs about having someone of Trump’s temperament and professional disposition being the commander-in-chief.”..............