Trump, amid legal battles, gives deposition against chef
NEW YORK – President-elect Donald Trump gave a videotaped deposition on Thursday for a lawsuit stemming from a clash with a celebrity restaurateur at his new Washington hotel. It was a rare legal proceeding for a president-elect or sitting president that highlights the legal woes that could follow Trump to the Oval Office.
Trump sat for an hour at Trump Tower to give testimony in a lawsuit he filed against Jose Andres after the chef cancelled plans to open a Spanish-themed restaurant at a new Washington hotel. Andres pulled out after Trump, in declaring his candidacy for president, called some Mexican immigrants “rapists” and said some were bringing drugs and crime to the U.S.
Trump sat for the interview between meetings about his Inauguration and search for top officials to fill his administration just two weeks before he takes office.
The president-elect settled on a new director of national intelligence, selecting former Sen. Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, according to a person briefed on the decision but not authorized to speak publicly about it. If confirmed, Coats will lead an agency the president-elect is eying for possible restructuring. Trump has been critical of the nation’s intelligence agencies and has cast doubt about their conclusion that Russia was behind the hacking of last year’s elections.
A lawyer for the Trump Organization called the deposition routine and described the dispute with Andres as “fairly straightforward.”
“In short, the parties entered into a valid and legally binding lease, which the tenant breached by failing to perform its obligations, entitling the landlord to damages in the form of unpaid rent, cost of build out, lost profits and other expenses,” attorney Alan Garten told The Associated Press.
Garten said Trump was “a great witness, as always.”
An attorney for Andres did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Andres, a Spanish immigrant, backed out of the restaurant in Trump’s hotel, located on Pennsylvania Avenue a few blocks from the White House, in July 2015. Andres said at the time that Trump’s statements disparaging immigrants “make it impossible for my company and I to move forward.” More than half of his team is Hispanic, as are many of his restaurant guests, the chef said.
Under the doctrine of immunity, presidents cannot be sued for actions they take in carrying out presidential duties. But anything outside that is open season. In its 1997 decision in the Paula Jones sexual harassment case against Bill Clinton, the Supreme Court ruled that presidents can be sued while in office for actions unrelated to official acts.
Trump’s sprawling business empire – and his own litigious nature – have generated scores of lawsuits over decades, some of which will continue after Trump takes office.
The lawsuit isn’t the only one stemming from the construction of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, which had its grand opening in October.
Like Andres, celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian also backed out of plans to open a restaurant in the hotel in July 2015, saying then that Trump’s statements about Mexican immigrants “do not in any way align” with his personal core values. A lawsuit against the Food Network’s Iron Chef and “Chopped” judge followed and is ongoing. A spokeswoman for Trump hotels responded at the time that “Zakarian’s foolish decision will be his loss.”
Trump’s troubles with the hotel may be growing. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that two Washington-area small businesses that worked on the hotel filed liens on the property saying they had not been fully paid for their work.
Trump could also face trouble with Trump University, his now-defunct real estate school.
The president-elect agreed in November to pay $25 million to settle two class-action lawsuits and one by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman that alleged the school misled and defrauded students. Trump admitted no wrongdoing and said that he was only settling to get the controversy behind him so he could focus on the presidency, but he could still get pulled back into the case. Former students represented in the suit could object to the settlement.
The New York attorney general is also investigating a Trump charitable foundation following media reports that its spending went to benefit his campaign. Trump has said he is dissolving the foundation to focus on the presidency, but a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office says that can’t be done until the investigation is complete.
Clinton was the last sitting president to be deposed when he testified in 1998 as part of Jones’ lawsuit. Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Ulysses S. Grant are the only other White House occupants to face a deposition.
Coats, a conservative who spent 16 years in the Senate before retiring last year, would follow James Clapper, the current director of national intelligence. Clapper testified before a Senate committee on Thursday that Russia poses “an existential threat to the United States,” though Trump has repeatedly second-guessed the intelligence agencies’ conclusions about Russia.
On Friday, Clapper and the directors of the FBI and CIA are expected to present the president-elect their findings during a briefing at Trump Tower.