We have previously discussed the extraordinary prospect of a President-elect Donald Trump being called as a witness between his election and his inauguration. That prospect is still quite real, even though U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel pushed both sides to settle the case involving Trump University. He also rejected a motion to bar campaign statements by Trump at trial, an interesting ruling that seems in part due to the failure to specify the statements that the defense wanted to exclude from trial.
Judge Curiel pushed the parties to settle “given all else that’s involved.” Federal courts often pushed for settlements at this stage, though there is obviously more reason to do so here. It could be a problem for Trump who pledged to fight and win the case, but a settlement would remove considerable distraction for his new administration.
Curiel did allow Trump to give his testimony by video link in light of his responsibilities as the President elect.
The fraud case is actually quite interesting. The claims are based primarily on alleged assurances or indications that Trump University was an accredited university, that Trump handpicked top experts in the field to teach them, and they would receive a year of mentoring. However, the case does raise the long-standing warning of caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) for consumer to separate puffery from promises in such arrangements. Many were sold after watching what was clearly an infomercial. The Trump team insists that these students were unsuccessful due to their own failings and many actually gave the course high marks for satisfaction. I have long been a critic of such commercial “educational” products, even with accredited online universities. Students often pay huge amounts and receive sub par courses or educations. While the base course only lasted 3 days and cost $1,500, the gold or elite mentored courses could go as high as a shocking $35,000.
Trump University was incorporated in 2004 and Donald Trump owned 93% of the company. Notably, however,
in June 2010, “Trump University” dropped the educational reference and changed its name to “The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative.” It then shutdown in 2010.
Trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 28 and, while he allowed for briefing on another delay, Curiel indicated that he was not inclined to do so.
The Trump lawyers sought to exclude trial statements but did not appear to adequately specify the statements according to Curiel who said “Defendants have not identified specific evidence that they wish to exclude. Accordingly, the court declines to issue a blanket ruling at this time.”
I view the Trump motion as meritorious if it is fully detailed and supported. I think comments about the judge or other issues is likely to be prejudicial and distracting. The closer question would be comments about the case itself. Many judges would allow those comments to be introduced. In that sense, Curiel’s decision makes sense. The Trump lawyers can object in the course of the trial to specific questions and he will weigh the probative value of the statements against their prejudicial impact.