Heading into the 2016 election, both major political parties have a presumptive presidential nominee in legal trouble. Hillary Clinton is the target of a lawsuit to determine whether she used a private email server during her time at the State Department to avoid freedom of information laws. Donald Trump has been sued for fraud by former “students” at his real estate school.
Richard Nixon once famously exclaimed, “When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” The arrogance of power expressed in that statement eventually got him impeached.
But it makes you wonder if the Republican and Democratic nominees for the 2016 election are working in the same vein, perhaps going a step further. Can becoming president get you out of past legal trouble?
We may find out at the next inauguration.
Donald Trump is facing two class-action lawsuits claiming that he failed to teach his real estate techniques to students as promised. The lawsuits allege that Trump himself sold them live seminars, courses and mentorships with Trump-trained experts, but never actually taught them anything.
One lawsuit is a racketeering claim with alleged victims throughout the country. The other is based on state consumer protection laws in California, New York and Florida. Both were certified as class actions in 2014 and are pending in a San Diego federal district court.
Here’s how the scheme worked, according to the lawsuits:
- The victims accepted invitations to a free workshop to learn the secrets of real estate investing, the techniques that had made Trump rich. Instead of secrets, they were treated to high-pressure sales tactics and funneled into three-day seminars priced at $1500.
- The seminars were packed with fun and merriment, an introduction to the lives of the rich and famous. But the seminar content was nothing more than hype about getting rich with real estate, designed solely to upsell a variety of courses valued at $35,000.
- The courses were also worthless. Some techniques even recommended actions that were illegal under some local codes. Students were assigned coaches or mentors who knew no more about Trump’s real estate techniques than the students themselves. Students were also promised access to financiers interested in real estate deals, but no investors were ever made available.
And then they were dumped, never learning any techniques that would help them wisely invest in real estate.
While the courses were sold by Trump University — rebranded Trump Entrepreneurial Initiative because the “university” didn’t have an educational license — Donald J. Trump is a defendant as well. That’s because the alleged fraud depended on his reputation as a real estate mogul.
The plaintiffs allege they were enticed by promises to meet Trump at every stage of the scheme.
The fascinating thing for me is that the first of these lawsuits was filed in April 2010. Trump started running for president of the United States with two class-action lawsuits for consumer fraud hanging over his head. Those lawsuits must have factored into his decision not to run for president in 2012, but he apparently got over the chagrin.
Now, as the Republican nominee for president, he may have to take the witness stand as a defendant in a fraud trial. This is arrogance on par with Nixon’s.
Avoiding FOIA at State
Hillary Clinton is not actually a party to the lawsuit targeting her. Judicial Watch has filed 20 lawsuits against the State Department to gain access to work-related emails stored on her private server.
With 20 years of government experience, Clinton knew there would be heavy demands for her records when she became Secretary of State. There was good reason to shield herself and her colleagues from the often obstructionist demands of political critics.
By the same token, she also knew that the Federal Records Act required her to make all work-related communications available to the government, so they could be stored at the National Archives and disclosed as necessary under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). By design, every memo and letter was to be assigned a document ID, every phone call was to be logged, every email message was to be stored on a government server.
But that didn’t happen.
In her first month as Secretary, Clinton hired a State Department employee off the books to set up a private email server in her home. Throughout her tenure at State, she sent and received tens of thousands of work-related emails using a private email address that never touched a government server. She failed to turn over those messages — as the law required — when she left the government in 2013.
We know all this only because a Romanian hacker known as Guccifer breached the AOL account of a longtime Clinton confidante in March 2013 and found intelligence-related messages sent to Clinton at a private email address. It took Clinton two years to publicly acknowledge that she’d used a private server for email communications during her time at State.
Within days, Judicial Watch had filed 10 FOIA lawsuits against the State Department seeking the email messages Clinton had belatedly turned over.
Clinton has been forced to declare, under penalty of perjury, that she’s handed over all work-related emails sent or received through her private server. The lawsuits now seek to prove her a liar, and a judge has found sufficient “evidence of government wrongdoing and bad faith” to order depositions and other discovery of Clinton’s top staff.
Clinton may have to testify later this year.
Again, what makes people think they can get away with these things? Innocent or not, Clinton’s behavior displays an arrogance of power that equals Nixon’s.
And the winner is…
No idea. But either way, the electorate is the loser. Despite the presence of several third-party candidates, the next president will be one of the two most unpopular presidential candidates in modern history.
The closer we get to November, the less voters will care about these legal troubles. Or rather, the less they will care about the legal troubles of their candidate. In a race between Trump and Clinton, people will be voting against the other side rather than for someone they’d like to see in office.
Becoming president may not end the legal troubles of the winner, but getting nominated will have some effect. Barack Obama endorsed Hillary Clinton just after the California primaries, when it appeared she’d won the Democratic nomination. You’d expect the FBI to stop cooperating with a civil court that’s sweating what could be the next president. And there’s no chance the Justice Department will indict her.
Likewise, every inch of progress in Trump’s cases will be viewed through the lens of politics. Trump has shamelessly questioned the judge’s objectivity on the basis of his Mexican heritage. Rightly or wrongly, the judge will likely bend over backwards in Trump’s favor to avoid the appearance of bias. It would take a courageous judge, for instance, to allow news cameras into the court when Trump testifies.
Which candidate are you backing in November? Do these legal troubles factor into your vote? Share your thoughts in the comments below.