Donald Trump Ordered For Deposition In D.C. Hotel Restaurant Case

Dec 17, 2016
Originally published on December 19, 2016 10:15 am

In five weeks, President Donald Trump's inauguration parade will roll past his new luxury hotel near the White House. But just over two weeks from now, Trump has to sit down with several lawyers and give a sworn deposition in a lawsuit involving the hotel.

What's the lawsuit about?

Trump is suing two chefs who bailed out on the hotel after his declaration of candidacy in June 2015 — the speech in which he said Mexican immigrants are "bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." Chefs Jose Andres and Geoffrey Zakarian, who had been building signature eateries in the historic Old Post Office building, cited the speech. Trump says they breached their contracts and is seeking $10 million from each of them.

What's a deposition, and how important is it?

A deposition, unlike a trial, is seeking information, not determining truth. They serve as a basis for trial questions, often to see if a witness's story changes. Witnesses at depositions have less leeway than trial witnesses in refusing to answer questions.

Veteran Washington lawyer William Taylor III said, "Depositions are taken by the other side for purposes of showing the person being deposed is either a liar or a crook."

There's usually no judge present at a deposition. Federal civil-trial rules, which apply in District of Columbia courts, allow depositions as long as seven hours. Trump's attorneys asked that the upcoming deposition be just two hours; D.C. Superior Court Judge Jennifer Di Toro turned them down.

Trump has already been deposed in the Zakarian case. Trump's attorneys asked the judge to prevent those questions from being repeated next month. She refused.

Doesn't Trump have presidential work to attend to?

Clearly yes, but his lawyers didn't convince Judge Di Toro that it warranted postponing the deposition. They said Trump "is extremely busy handling matters of very significant public importance." She responded that the restaurant lawyers were working around his schedule, that Trump's own statements are crucial to the case and, besides, his company Trump LLC had started the legal action.

Have other presidents-elect or presidents been deposed?

Sitting presidents who have been deposed are Ulysses Grant, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Only one of their depositions has major historical significance.

Clinton was deposed in 1998, in a sexual harassment suit by Paula Jones, a one-time government employee in Arkansas. It was the first time he was questioned about former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and their relationship. The deposition fueled investigations by independent counsel Kenneth Starr and House Republicans. In less than a year, House Republicans impeached Clinton. The Senate later voted to acquit him.

Will the deposition be videotaped?

Yes. Trump has been through many depositions, and video of the Zakarian session showed him to be a skilled witness, spare with his words and gestures. In other words, pretty much the opposite of his campaign persona. But whenever the video becomes public, his critics are certain to comb through it, examining both what he said and how he came across — looking for the kind of video moments that quickly flow into social media.

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An anxious electorate and several international crises will greet Donald Trump when he's sworn into office, but first he has to take time out to answer questions under oath about restaurants at his new Washington, D.C., hotel. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: This all goes back to June of 2015 when Trump announced his candidacy and, in the same speech, denigrated Latin American immigrants. Two high-profile restaurateurs abandoned their projects in Trump's new luxury hotel near the White House. Trump sued them for breach of contract. Trump has plenty of experience with lawsuits and depositions. He was questioned last June in an earlier deposition in the hotel dispute.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER #1: Would you state your full name for the record, please?

DONALD TRUMP: Donald John Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER #1: And I imagine you've had your deposition taken a number of times.

TRUMP: I have, yes.

OVERBY: A lawyer for one of the chefs questioned Trump about the inflammatory anti-immigrant language in his speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER #1: Did you write the statement in advance? Was it written?

TRUMP: No.

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER #1: And did you plan in advance what you were going to say?

TRUMP: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER #1: OK, did you talk to other people about it?

TRUMP: No.

OVERBY: Trump was subdued, and he gave short answers. This is how a deposition witness is supposed to act. But a deposition is a risky thing. It's done to gather information, not to determine truth. Usually there's no judge in the room. Depositions in federal courts can run up to seven hours long.

The judge in Trump's case turned down his bid for a two-hour limit. And under the rules, a witness has to answer pretty much every question. William Taylor III is a Washington defense lawyer who has prepped a lot of clients.

WILLIAM TAYLOR: Depositions are taken by the other side for purposes of showing that the person being deposed is either a liar or a crook.

OVERBY: Sitting presidents have been deposed, Ulysses Grant and Gerald Ford among them. But the most damaging presidential deposition was held in 1998. Bill Clinton, under oath in a sexual harassment suit by Paula Jones, was asked for the first time about White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The Lewinsky case went to a grand jury. Here, Clinton is being questioned by a prosecutor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER #2: During the deposition, you remember that Ms. Lewinsky's name came up and you were asked several questions about her. Do you remember that?

FORMER PRES BILL CLINTON: Yes, sir. I do.

OVERBY: Clinton's involvement with Lewinsky, and what he said about it in the deposition, led to his impeachment later that year. Again, Trump's deposition next month will be about restaurants. Still, with social media, a videotaped deposition can be politicized. Pete White is a corporate litigation attorney.

PETE WHITE: Mr. Trump is such a public figure that that's a risk they have to be concerned about. And his behavior during the deposition will get more scrutiny perhaps than other people's.

OVERBY: So whenever the videotape becomes public, Trump's critics will be combing it for issues that go beyond hotels and restaurants. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.