We are, incredibly, just days away from what is being billed as the most consequential election in American history, an assertion which, no matter how sensationalized the claim may be, only serves to underscore just how serious the stakes are.
With that in mind, the race between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden has been anything but typical, thanks to everything from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions it's placed on how and where candidates can campaign, to the president's penchant for saying wildly untrue and dangerous things. To quote the comedian John Mulaney, the horse is not only loose in the hospital, but he's trying desperately — if seemingly unsuccessfully — to convince the patients to let him stay.
One way the president hopes to stay in office, given how close the race is, is if the courts hand him the presidency. And, if you follow Trump's particularly craven political calculation, the courts are a fairly good bet on his part: He has, after all, spent a lifetime in and out of the judicial system as both plaintiff and defendant. If there's one thing Trump knows, it's how to (usually, but not always) torque the courts in his favor.
Indeed, if the 2020 presidential election does end up in court, it will not be Trump's only current legal battle. In fact, the president right now is involved in multiple lawsuits against his administration — as is to be expected in any White House – and against himself personally. With that in mind, it's fairly shocking that the many, many lawsuits against Trump have not been a major feature of the campaign. But given that the president is asking to lead the country for another four years, it seems worth going through just some of the legal fronts he himself is facing. This is not a comprehensive list — we're not including lawsuits over specific administration policies, for example — but it should give you a sense of just how deeply enmeshed in legal battles the president remains.
E. Jean Carroll
Of all the lawsuits Trump is battling at the moment, perhaps none is quite so serious in terms of the conduct being described than that of longtime journalist and former Elle magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll, who has accused the president of sexually assaulting her while the pair shopped in a department store in the mid-1990s.
Trump, naturally, denied the allegation, calling Carroll "not my type" — a statement that likely contributed to Carroll's subsequent lawsuit this past November, not for the alleged sexual assault, but for defamation. In a statement, she explained that ""while I can no longer hold Donald Trump accountable for assaulting me more than 20 years ago, I can hold him accountable for lying about it, and I fully intend to do so."
Notably, Carroll's suit against Trump is perhaps the clearest nexus of the president's attempt to merge his personal and political lives. Earlier this month, the Department of Justice surprised legal observers by moving to replace Trump as the defendant in the suit with the United States itself.
The motion was subsequently rejected by a federal judge who ruled that Trump was not an "employee" of the government. Additionally, the judge wrote, "while commenting on the operation of government is part of the regular business of the United States, commenting on sexual assault allegations unrelated to the operation of government is not."
The case is now cleared to proceed. In a statement, Carroll said: "When I spoke out about what Donald Trump did to me in a department store dressing room, I was speaking out against an individual. When Donald Trump called me a liar and denied that he had ever met me, he was not speaking on behalf of the United States. I am happy that [the judge] recognized these basic truths."
Similar to E. Jean Carroll, former Apprentice contestant Summer Zervos also claims Trump sexually assaulted her — in her case, in 2007, while they were meeting to discuss business opportunities after her stint on the show. Trump has denied the claim. Like Carroll's, Zervos's suit is not over the alleged assault itself, but is for defamation stemming from Trump's denial of her claim, which she said left her no choice but to "vindicate my reputation."
In early 2020, a New York court paused Zervos's suit against the president, just weeks before Trump was scheduled to be deposed. The president has since unsuccessfully attempted to have the suit dismissed entirely, arguing through his legal team that the Constitution bars him from being sued in state court. That decision is currently waiting on appeal — and, should Trump lose re-election, the case would likely resume, with Trump unable to rely on his presidential status as a legal shield.
Mary Trump has made little secret of her loathing for Uncle Donald and his "sociopathic tendencies," as she put it. (In addition to being the daughter of the president's late brother, she also holds a Ph.D. in psychology.) But Mary's intra-family clash with her uncle goes far beyond simple mistrust and dislike, thanks to a lawsuit filed in late September, alleging that the president and his siblings conspired to cheat Mary out of her inheritance after her father, Fred Trump Jr., died in 1981.
While the suit technically accuses the president of fraud, Mary's attorneys made a point to highlight just how much business is personal in her family, writing in the court filing that the "defendants’ fraud against Mary was particularly egregious and morally culpable because defendants deliberately targeted her because they disliked her."
Trump's consigliere-turned-critic Michael Cohen has been a persistent irritant to the president ever since he testified against his former boss before Congress in early 2019. Cohen, a convicted felon in his own right, is now out of prison — part of a wave of early releases spurred by the coronavirus pandemic — and in March of last year sued the man he once unabashedly caped for on national television, claiming the Trump organization had breached an agreement with him in which they promised to cover any legal fees he had incurred while working on their behalf. Cohen says that amounts to about $2 million.
While the suit is levied against the Trump Organization, and not the president himself, it's a helpful reminder to the public about what Trump the Businessman is actually like.
From the moment he announced his candidacy in 2015, it seemed as if there were few things Trump cared more about than making sure his personal tax information remained behind as many impenetrable locks as possible, going against decades of precedent set by presidential candidates from both major parties. Since then, the president has offered a laundry list of flimsy excuses for why he hasn't revealed his finances, while at the same time working tirelessly to block any and every legal attempt to crack open his tax papers as part of multiple investigations into him and his business dealings.
Those efforts have brought the question of whether or not the Manhattan district attorney's office can subpoena the president's accounting firm for years worth of his financial records all the way to the Supreme Court, after a multiple lower courts ruled that the DA did in fact have cause to obtain the various filings.
Perhaps more than any of his other pending lawsuits, the question of whether Trump's taxes can and will be released to the Manhattan DA represents the most immediate danger for the president. While the suit itself is simply over the procedural issue of enforcing a subpoena, it is part of a much more serious, expansive effort by the DA's office to reportedly investigate the president's businesses for serious criminal offenses, including fraud and tax evasion.
This comes as New York State Attorney General Letitia James is also suing the president's businesses — and his second son, Eric — to compel them to comply with her own investigation into alleged criminal activity, also believed to be financially motivated.
Ultimately, if Trump doesn't win a second term in office, these lawsuits will not only be waiting for him upon his return to civilian life, but he'll also likely be left to face them without the legal fortress of the presidency to shield him. Whether that means any of the suits will ultimately prevail is an open question that only time can answer. What's clear, however, is that the president's campaign would very much like it if no one talked about the many, many legal wolves howling outside its door.