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Mueller aside, Trump now faces legal peril from a host of sources

A web of lawsuits involving President Trump and his associates – filed by Russian oligarchs, the Democratic Party, and a porn star, among others – may seem primarily like a source of cable news entertainment. But this civil litigation could pose grave risks to Mr. Trump and his presidency. 

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Adult film actress Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels, is suing President Trump to negate a non-disclosure agreement she signed in 2016 to keep quiet about an alleged extramarital encounter, as well as for defamation. Mr. Trump has denied the relationship.


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Special counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia may be the most high-profile probe circling President Trump in the aftermath of the 2016 election. But it is far from the only legal threat Mr. Trump is facing – and it may not even wind up being the most consequential.

Allegations about Trump campaign collusion, murky international business deals, and the president’s alleged encounters with various women, have given rise to a barrage of litigation in the civil courts as well.

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Such lawsuits – filed by Russian oligarchs, the Democratic Party, and a porn star, among others – may seem like a distraction or a source of cable news entertainment. But legal experts warn that this kind of civil litigation could in fact pose grave risks to Mr. Trump and his presidency.

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“This is very serious,” says Andrew Wright, a professor at Savannah Law School and a former White House lawyer during both the Clinton and Obama administrations.

“I think they’re under greater threat than the Clinton administration was at any time,” he says. “The Trump White House is in significantly greater legal peril.”

While Trump and his supporters have grown increasingly critical of the expanding nature of the special counsel’s criminal investigation, the president and his associates are facing an even wider array of civil lawsuits.

What that means for Trump and his team is that they are now facing multiple allegations from a variety of lawyers conducting their own investigations into various aspects of Trump’s alleged conduct. These investigations are independent of Mr. Mueller’s probe – yet they could wind up being somewhat symbiotic, depending on what they unearth. And they will likely continue, regardless of the final outcome of Mueller’s investigation.

Among the pending lawsuits:   

  • The Democratic Party is accusing the 2016 Trump campaign of acting as a racketeering enterprise while allegedly conspiring with Russia and WikiLeaks to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.
  • An adult film star, Stephanie Clifford (also known as Stormy Daniels), is suing Trump to negate a once-secret October 2016 non-disclosure agreement set up by Trump’s personal lawyer to prevent Ms. Clifford from publicly discussing an alleged 2006 consensual intimate encounter. When Trump denied the relationship and called her claims a “con job,” she retaliated with a second lawsuit – for defamation.  
  • A Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, is suing Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, over $18.9 million that allegedly disappeared from a Cayman Islands investment company. Mr. Manafort is under indictment by Mueller in both Washington and Virginia on money laundering and tax fraud charges related to his earlier business dealings. Manafort has pleaded not guilty. He is suspected of being a key link, through Mr. Deripaska and other former Russian business associates, between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Deripaska denies any such connection.
  • Summer Zervos, a 2005 contestant on Trump’s reality TV show “The Apprentice,” is suing Trump for defamation after he called her a “liar” when she claimed he twice kissed her on the mouth and made an unwanted sexual advance toward her in 2007.
  • Three victims of the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee in 2016 are suing the Trump campaign for violating their privacy. The stolen information was posted online, disclosing Social Security numbers, financial details, private correspondence, and, in one case, the sexual orientation of the victim.

Five of these pending civil lawsuits are closely linked to alleged actions by Trump.

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“In each of those cases, I anticipate that the president is going to have to give depositions, and those will be done under oath,” Professor Wright says. “Some of them are going to cover topics that the president is currently threatening to avoid talking to Bob Mueller about.”

He adds: “There’s certainly nothing stopping coordination between Bob Mueller and other people’s counsel where there are areas of overlap.”

The Stormy Daniels effect

The most prominent area of overlap currently is between Clifford’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, and federal prosecutors in New York City who are investigating Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen.

It was Mr. Cohen who drafted the Clifford non-disclosure agreement and funneled $130,000 of hush money to her in the weeks before the 2016 election. Now Clifford wants out of the agreement.

The publicity surrounding Clifford’s case has given a fresh uplift to her career. She has been appearing at strip clubs across the country, and even had a cameo (clothed) appearance on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.” Likewise, Mr. Avenatti is making a name for himself as a kind of litigation pit bull, with ubiquitous appearances on CNN and MSNBC.

This week, he released a seven-page “executive summary” of his investigation of Essential Consultants – the newly-formed Delaware company that Cohen used to make the hush-money payment to Clifford.

Avenatti discovered that there was more going on in the company’s bank account than just the movement of money to his client. He identified a series of other transactions, including $500,000 in payments transferred from Columbus Nova, a New York-based private equity firm with ties to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

Avenatti suggested in his executive summary – without citing any evidence – that the money was transferred by Mr. Vekselberg and that “it appears that these funds may have replenished the account following the payment to Ms. Clifford.”

Officials with Columbus Nova and a spokesman for Velselberg dispute any connection with the Clifford issue. “The firm hired Michael Cohen as a business consultant regarding potential sources of capital and potential investments in real estate and other ventures,” the company said in a statement.

Essential Consultants received similar payments from major corporations including the telecom giant AT&T and the international pharmaceutical company Novartis. The companies say they hired Cohen as a consultant for advice about how to navigate the new Trump administration.

Although this episode may not significantly advance the ongoing investigation of Cohen or the Trump-Russia probe, it underscores how interrelated many of these cases may wind up being – and how aggressive tactics by a single lawyer can complicate efforts by the president and his associates to defend themselves.

It remains unclear how Avenatti got his information, and the Treasury Department’s Inspector General has now launched an investigation. But from Avenatti’s perspective, his strategy is working. “Because we’re so out front on this, people send us information,” he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “People want to help our cause.”

A vehicle to procure documents?

Trump supporters have denounced many of the lawsuits – including Avenatti’s – as vehicles to convince judges to order Trump to turn over documents related to his business activities, including tax returns, and eventually submit to questioning under oath. Whatever they discover could be used to undermine the president politically, be turned over to the special counsel’s office, or be sent to members of Congress for use in any future impeachment proceeding.

Next Thursday, lawyers for the Trump campaign will ask a federal judge in Washington to dismiss the privacy lawsuit filed on behalf of the three victims of the stolen DNC emails.

In his motion to dismiss the case, Washington lawyer Michael Carvin argues that the allegations in the complaint of a Trump-Russia conspiracy are being made without any underlying factual support.

“The object of this lawsuit is to launch a private investigation into the president of the United States,” Mr. Carvin writes. “Plaintiffs have not named the president as a defendant, but the complaint foreshadows a fishing expedition into his ‘tax returns,’ ‘business relationships and financial ties,’ ‘real estate projects,’ conversations with FBI Director Comey, and on and on.”

Lawyers for the three victims counter in their own brief that the dismissal motion is designed to deny them the opportunity to collect the evidence that could prove their case.

In the two suits filed on behalf of Clifford, Avenatti has made clear that his goal is to force Trump into a face-to-face interrogation under oath.

Among the unresolved questions in the Clifford hush-money case are when the president learned of the nondisclosure agreement, and whether Trump paid for it.

Trump has denied that he had any intimate encounter with Clifford. He and his associates have made conflicting statements about the payment. Cohen originally told The New York Times that he made the $130,000 payment on his own and was not reimbursed. More recently, one of Trump’s lawyers, Rudy Giuliani, said Trump did repay Cohen, and Trump himself tweeted that Cohen was repaid via a monthly retainer. Despite these attempts to answer lingering questions, Trump and his lawyers have yet to provide a clear explanation of the episode.

The Clinton comparison

Many legal analysts have drawn the comparison between Trump’s shaky posture in response to the Clifford case and the disastrous actions taken by then-President Bill Clinton when he was confronted under oath about alleged sexual improprieties.

Mr. Clinton lied and was ultimately impeached on perjury and obstruction of justice charges. The Senate declined to remove him from office.

Now it is a Republican president in the spotlight, and many of Trump’s supporters are concerned that he may not emerge unscathed from an interview with Mueller’s team or a deposition in any of the pending civil cases.

Trump is famously imprecise in his use of language and engages in frequent flourishes of hyperbole. Some Trump supporters have expressed concern that it might make him vulnerable to a perjury trap.

Others analysts dismiss the idea.

“I don’t know what a perjury trap is. I don’t think a perjury trap exists,” says Richard Serafini, a defense attorney in South Florida and a former prosecutor with the Securities Exchange Commission.

“How do you get fooled into lying?” he asks. “In order to commit perjury, you have to convey false information knowing that it is not a mistake. I don’t see how you get tricked into that.”

Mr. Serafini says the process is simple. “You go in, you tell them what you know honestly, and if you don’t know something, you tell them you don’t know.”

In the meantime, experts say Trump could help himself by talking less.

“The way you handle this kind of cross-cutting risk across many different investigative bodies and civil litigants is by keeping your mouth shut,” Wright says.

The standard response is to decline any comment about an ongoing investigation.

“That’s how you get through the news cycle,” Wright says. “Not by calling it a witch hunt and attacking the motives of everyone. All that is just going to be quicksand. You are just going to sink deeper and deeper into it.”

He adds: “The way you survive is by not engaging at all. And that is clearly not in the president’s skill set – yet.”