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Exclusive: Trump’s 3,500 lawsuits unprecedented for a presidential nominee

Our project found about 3,500 legal actions involving Trump, including 1,900 where he or his companies were a plaintiff and about 1,300 in which he was the defendant. Due to his branding value, Trump is determined to defend his name and reputation. Kelly Jordan, USA TODAY

(Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)
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.

Exclusive: More than 100 lawsuits, disputes, tied to Trump and his companies

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.

Trump, New York attorney general spar again over Trump U.

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.

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