The peril lurking in Trump's deepening legal mire

Robert Mueller's Russia investigation looms larger for President Donald Trump every day, but when it comes to legal j...

Posted: Mar 22, 2018 12:28 PM
Updated: Mar 22, 2018 12:28 PM

Robert Mueller's Russia investigation looms larger for President Donald Trump every day, but when it comes to legal jeopardy, the President has far more to worry about than just the special counsel.

Trump is now facing a triple-barreled litigation drama involving a porn actress, a reality show star and a former Playboy model that promises further embarrassing allegations.

The President has shown an almost metaphysical capacity to escape scandals that would doom any normal politician, and may assume he can skate through his latest controversies without incurring serious political damage.

But the rigid procedures of the legal system may prove to be less pliable to the President's convention-busting behavior.

While it is yet to be established whether any of the cases have merit, their existence alone is bad news for Trump, since they could embroil him in years of litigation, lead to the uncovering of documents and evidence he would rather keep private and convince other women who believe they have a case to go to court and force the President into depositions where he would risk perjuring himself if he were not completely truthful.

"Another legal front is opening up against him and one that is going to be -- in some ways, at least until Mueller releases his report or whatever it is that he eventually does -- is going to be much more public than the special counsel investigation," said Tom Spiggle, a former assistant US attorney who now runs a law firm headquartered in Virginia.

For most people, fighting simultaneous lawsuits, especially concerning sexual allegations, would be their worst nightmare. But Trump is hardly a stranger to legal combat, having initiated or been a party to hundreds of lawsuits while living his life in a tabloid glare.

Yet judging by vigorous attempts his lawyers have made to squelch the cases against him, there is considerable concern in Trump's camp that the thickening legal jungle ensnaring him could come with a high political or legal cost.

Prolonged legal duels that dominate news coverage may not loosen Trump's hold on his loyal political base. But they could further weaken him among white women voters in suburban districts, who will be crucial in the midterm elections. It's also possible that Trump's somewhat incongruous connection with evangelical voters, a staple of his coalition, could come under pressure. And maybe voters will just get fed up with the constant, seedy legal drama.

And the potential political jeopardy deepens the longer the civil cases against the President linger.

The cases against the President

The most high-profile civil suit against Trump was brought by Stormy Daniels, an adult film star who is trying to invalidate a nondisclosure agreement preventing her speaking about an alleged affair with the former real estate tycoon more than a decade ago.

In another matter, Summer Zervos, a former contestant on "The Apprentice," is suing the President for defamation after he blasted her allegations that he had kissed and groped her without her consent in 2007.

In a third case, former Playboy model Karen McDougal is suing American Media, the company she said kept her story of a 10-month affair with Trump from publication in a tabloid maneuver known as "catch and kill."

The company said in a statement provided to CNN that McDougal "has been free to respond to press inquiries about her relationship with President Trump since 2016" and that American Media had not "silenced" her.

Trump has denied the allegations in all three cases.

Constant revelations about the President's personal history and mushrooming courtroom challenges suggest that the new front in Trump's legal wars is going to be a grinding distraction to his presidency for months to come.

"I am NOT going anywhere," Daniels taunted Tuesday on Twitter.

One potential area of concern for Trump's team may be whether a $130,000 payment to Daniels by Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen before the 2016 election is seen as an attempt to keep information from voters and could be regarded as an in-kind campaign contribution and infringe upon election law.

Still, former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was found not guilty in a similar case, and the violation is hard to prosecute.

That means the most serious threat to Trump could come from Zervos.

On Tuesday, a New York state Supreme Court judge denied a request by Trump's legal team to throw out the case on the grounds that he was immune from state court actions as President.

That opened up the potential of a pretrial period of discovery, as rival legal teams build evidence, and potentially the prospect of a deposition -- both of which could put Trump in a perilous position.

The ultimate danger for a defendant in a civil action is when the case crosses into criminal territory -- as it would if the President were not to tell the truth under oath.

"As a civil matter, who cares, he can sue and be sued, he has gone through it a million times before," Jennifer Rodgers, a former federal prosecutor, told CNN's Brooke Baldwin on Wednesday.

"But when it turns over into a potential criminal matter like when he testifies, that is of course when he and his presidency get into great trouble."

The Clinton precedent

After all, there is precedent for a President tripping up while testifying under oath about events that occurred before he took office.

President Bill Clinton opened the door to impeachment when he lied under oath about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky while testifying in a sexual harassment suit brought by Paula Jones.

It was the precedent of that very case that New York Supreme Court Judge Jennifer Schecter used to allow Zervos to pursue her action against Trump, a ruling that the President's lawyers have said they will appeal.

In practice, given the criticism heaped on former Clinton independent counsel Kenneth Starr, it seems unlikely that Mueller would broaden his investigation to include any perjury by Trump in a civil case.

But Trump's propensity to dodge the truth has already worried associates, who are pleading with him to reverse his offer to testify under oath to Mueller, as they fear he could walk into perjury traps.

A deposition in a civil case could also be dangerous for Trump even if he sticks closely to the truth, since the process can be a gold mine for a skilled legal team and cause the case to branch off in expansive new directions.

"The answer to every question is a trapdoor to 10 more questions, and those 10 answers can lead to 10 more questions, which grows exponentially with each answer," said Paul Pelletier, a former federal prosecutor who is a Democratic candidate for Virginia's 10th Congressional District.

"So it is a fairly wide-ranging process that exposes the answerer to all kinds of jeopardy, especially if he is not prepared or refuses to be prepared adequately."

Legal experts say there may be no way for Trump to eventually dodge a deposition in the Zervos case if it is allowed to proceed, opening him up to similar risks, as well as the possibility that his unfocused manner could lead him deeper into the mire.

In fact, the President's personality and refusal to let any attack go unanswered may already be responsible for his worsening legal troubles.

The Zervos case had run its statute of limitations, but by seizing on the President's attacks on his accusers ahead of the election, her lawyers were able to rebrand her action as a defamation suit.

The President could also come unstuck long before he is sworn in at a deposition. Discovery is an often expansive pretrial process that could dig deep behind the scenes of the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign and reveal new legal vulnerabilities.

Zervos' legal team has already requested Trump campaign documents about any women alleging that he touched them "inappropriately," since Trump's patterns of behavior are going to be relevant in a defamation suit.

Discovery can often turn into a fishing expedition, so there could be months of litigation and motions lodged by both sides, a process that is sure to dash any hopes of the President skipping free of his legal troubles anytime soon.

Another legal complication for the President could arise if other women who believe they have a case against him see the growing storm of litigation and view it as a chance to address their own grievances.

"There is a wave crashing and you have got to believe there are other women out there who have been subject to nondisclosures," said Spiggle.

"I think you will see some people saying, 'You know what? It is time for me to step out and tell my story.' "

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