Donald Trump speaks during an airport rally in Millington, Tenn. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht/Reuters)
Donald Trump said today he may ask the federal judge overseeing an upcoming civil fraud trial involving the now defunct Trump University to recuse himself because he is Hispanic and is therefore biased against him due to his plan to build a wall to keep out immigrants from Mexico.
Trump first raised the idea of filing a motion to recuse U.S. Judge Gonzalo Curiel during a campaign rally on Saturday in which, without mentioning him by name, the Republican candidate said the judge overseeing his case has shown “tremendous hostility” to him. “He’s Hispanic, which is fine,” Trump said.
“Why would you need to ask for a recusal and what does his ethnicity have to do with it?” moderator Chuck Todd asked Trump during an appearance on “Meet the Press” Sunday morning. “Because I think he’s been very, very unfair with us,” Trump replied. “I think the judge has been extremely unfair. This is a case that many, many, many people said should have been thrown out on summary judgment. We have 98 percent approval. We have an A from the Better Business Bureau.”
“And you think it’s because he is Hispanic?” Todd asked. Trump’s reply: “Well because of the wall, and because of everything that’s going with Mexico and all of that, I think it’s frankly — look, this is a judge who has treated me very, very unfairly. This is a case that should have been thrown out a long time ago in the opinion of many great lawyers.”
Curiel, who was born in East Chicago, Ind., and graduated from Indiana University and Indiana University Law School, was nominated to the federal bench by President Obama in 2011 — and approved by the Senate the next year by voice vote without opposition. His confirmation followed a lengthy legal career that included 13 years as a federal prosecutor in San Diego, starting under President George H.W. Bush, and ultimately rising to become chief of the office’s Narcotics Enforcement Division in charge of prosecuting narcotics cases involving Mexican drug smugglers. (At one point, Curiel’s efforts to extradite a top smuggler from Mexico led to a cartel threat to assassinate him.)
Assigned two fraud lawsuits filed by former students of Trump University accusing the school of deceptive trade practices, Curiel has rebuffed multiple motions by Trump’s lawyers to dismiss the case.
As far back as October 2014, long before Trump proposed building a wall on the Mexican border, one of Trump’s lawyers raised the idea of seeking a recusal of Curiel after the judge agreed to certify one of the cases as a class action lawsuit on behalf of all former Trump University students.
Curiel has also required Trump to answer questions about how much money he made from the school. In a separate action, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has pegged that figure at $5 million.
“Plaintiff argues that a showing that Trump invested millions of dollars in a fraudulent scheme and took millions more in profits from the scheme is relevant to Trump’s motive or intent to defraud,” the judge wrote in a ruling last July.
Trump’s comments about Curiel drew a sharp rebuke from Schneiderman, whose lawsuit over Trump University has been separately filed in New York State Courts. “There is no place in this process for racial demagoguery directed at respected members of the judiciary,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “The State Supreme Court has already ruled that Trump University operated illegally in New York as an unlicensed educational institution, and we look forward to prevailing on the rest of our claims as the legal process moves forward.”
Trump’s comments today came after several days in which Sen. Marco Rubio sharply attacked him as a “con artist” over his operation of Trump University. And according to recent court filings he will be required to testify about the matter before Curiel in an upcoming trial that could take place this spring or summer. No trial date has been set, but a final pretrial conference has been scheduled in Curiel’s courtroom on May 6.
The case involves allegations by plaintiffs that they were tricked into spending up to $36,000 to attend seminars and receive “mentoring” by Trump’s “hand-picked” experts in how to get rich in the real estate market. The seminars, the plaintiffs allege, amounted to little more than an “infomercial,” and Trump’s “experts” provided little if any useful advice.
Trump today strongly defended the record of Trump University and said he has no plans to settle the case. ( He recently hired noted litigator Daniel Petrocelli to represent him in the upcoming trial.)
“We had about 98 percent of the people took the courses, approved the courses, and they thought it was great, signed report cards, and they said it was great,” he said during the “Meet the Press” interview. “Those people are suing now to get their money back because a law firm said, “Hey listen, if I could get your money back, what would you say. … And you would say, ‘Oh great, get my money back.’”
“Here’s the only thing, Chuck,” Trump added. “I could settle the case, but I don’t want to settle the case. The reason is I don’t want to be held up. Once you settle cases, everybody sues you — and I don’t want to be held up.”