As expected, Donald Trump has lobbed lawsuits at a few states, challenging the bona fides of presidential voting. In a pair of cases in Michigan and Pennsylvania, he’s pushed to stop ballots from being tallied, while in Georgia he claimed negligence on the part of a single poll worker. He’s also threatened to demand a recount in Wisconsin and to sue Nevada for tallying “illegal votes.”
My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Feldman accurately described the Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania lawsuits as toothless. Judges in Michigan and Georgia dismissed the suits there on Thursday. And in Nevada, an NBC reporter, Jacob Soboroff, gamely tried to pin down a former Trump intelligence official, Ric Grenell, for evidence of voter fraud supporting the lawsuit there. Grenell stayed mum.
Trump’s lawsuits are plainly frivolous and manage to equate counting votes with fraud rather than democracy. But the point of the lawsuits isn’t to cure an actual problem. Trump has spent months claiming that elections and mail-in voting in the U.S. are riddled with malfeasance. They’re not, of course. His lawsuits are an extension of that push, and the true goal is to find someone or something that he can blame for his own failures and shortcomings — in this current case, possibly losing a presidential election.
Days, weeks, months and years hence, Trump will point at these lawsuits as tangible proof that something was rotten in the 2020 presidential election. In fact, he will say, had the election not been rigged, he would have won. That’s a two-fer for Trump: It allows him to avoid taking responsibility and helps him dodge the “loser” label he enjoys slapping on everyone else but so fears himself. In that context, the lawsuits are well worth it to him, even if they help erode public trust in the electoral process.
This is all old hat for Trump; he’s been involved in at least 3,500 lawsuits over the last three decades or so. He learned long ago from the late Roy Cohn how to weaponize the legal system against business competitors, the government and critics, gaining the valuable insight that sometimes merely filing a suit got him just as far as actually going to court. If it made a financial or legal problem go away, cowed an opponent or provided him with a fall guy, that was enough.
The media has been a favorite Trump target, and he’s routinely rattled his saber against reporters without following through. (Trump unsuccessfully sued me for libel in 2006, claiming that a biography I wrote, “TrumpNation,” unfairly questioned his business record and the size of his fortune.) But there have been plenty of others:
- The Department of Justice sued Trump, his father and their real estate company in 1973 for violating the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against prospective renters of color who wanted apartments in Trump buildings. Trump, guided by Cohn, countersued for $100 million, alleging that the feds were acting irresponsibly and that their claims lacked merit. The judge tossed the Trump suit, and he and his father eventually settled with the government out of court. Trump spent years using his countersuit as a prop, claiming the government had wanted him to lease to welfare recipients (when, in fact, he was accused of plain old racism) and that he had successfully beaten down Uncle Sam (when, in fact, the government required the Trumps to stop discriminating and later took them to court again for failing to comply with the settlement).
- When Trump proposed building a 150-story skyscraper on the West Side of Manhattan in 1984, an award-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, Paul Gapp, wrote that the building’s design was “one of the silliest things anyone could inflict on New York or any other city.” It aspired to make history as “Guinness Book of World Records architecture” rather than for superb aesthetics, Gapp noted. Trump sued the Tribune and Gapp for libel, charging that Gapp described the atrocious and ugly monstrosity he planned to build as “an atrocious, ugly monstrosity” — even though Gapp had never used such language. Trump’s suit was dismissed. The Tribune spent about $60,000 defending the case, which was a warning shot against other critics of the future president. The development the skyscraper anchored was never built, and Trump, mired in debt, was forced to sell it to Hong Kong developers. He later blamed the project’s demise on New York, its mayor and its residents — everyone but himself.
- Marvin Roffman, a financial analyst, correctly told the press in 1990 that a new Trump casino in Atlantic City, the Taj Mahal, was larded with far too much debt to be profitable. Trump threatened to sue Roffman’s employer, Janney Montgomery Scott, for the remarks — persuading the firm to promptly fire the analyst. Roffman later successfully countersued Trump, and the Taj, like many enterprises Trump managed, went bankrupt. Trump would go on to claim that an inhospitable market in Atlantic City, rather than his own ineptitude and infatuation with debt, was why the Taj and other casinos he ran there belly-flopped.
- To finance the construction of a mixed-use hotel and condominium project in Chicago, Trump borrowed $500 million from Deutsche Bank AG, the German financial giant, in 2005. Trump personally guaranteed at least $40 million of that loan. Units in the Trump International Hotel and Tower didn’t sell particularly well when it opened in 2008, and when the financial crisis accelerated that year, Trump’s debt became unmanageable. What did he do? He sued Deutsche Bank for $3 billion, claiming that his lender — not him — was at fault because of its involvement in the financial crisis, which Trump also compared to a natural disaster. Deutsche Bank countersued, and both sides settled eventually — and miraculously kept doing business together. Trump had found yet another fall guy.
All of this pre-presidential litigation had less dangerous and damaging echoes than it does now, but the playbook has always been the same. With public faith in our core institutions once again under assault from Trump — and perhaps one of the last times while he’s president — it would be valuable for everyone involved to remember that POTUS is often a paper tiger, especially in court.- Bloomberg
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