Trump is accused of financially threatening woman during secret deposition

Michael Isikoff
Chief Investigative Correspondent

Real estate mogul and TV star Donald Trump appears at a press conference in 2005 to announce Trump University, which offered real estate seminars for business professionals. (Photo: Dan Herrick/KPA/ZUMA Press)

Donald Trump, embroiled in a long-running legal battle with former students of his defunct Trump University, has been accused in recently filed court papers of threatening to financially ruin the woman who is a lead plaintiff in the suit. Trump’s comments, according to the filings, came in a secret deposition he gave just two months ago, on Dec. 10 — the same day he was making international headlines over his pledge to ban Muslim immigrants from the country.

The accusation was made in a motion by the woman — Tarla Makaeff, a California yoga instructor — to withdraw as lead plaintiff, asserting she has been “put through the wringer” by Trump and his lawyers and forced to “suffer daily with the fear that she could be bankrupted by Trump.”

Exactly what Trump said in his December deposition is unclear. The transcript is sealed and the excerpt cited by Makaeff’s lawyers was blacked out in the copy of the filing obtained by Yahoo News. The motion in support of Makaeff’s effort to back out of the suit claims she needs protection “from further retaliation” by the billionaire, who is leading in the polls for the Republican nomination for president.

The underlying class action lawsuit, filed in 2010, charges that Makaeff and thousands of other students were “scammed” into maxing out their credit cards and paying up to $60,000 in fees for seminars in hotel ballrooms and “mentoring” by Trump’s “hand-picked” real estate experts. The lawsuit against the school, which is no longer in business, alleges the seminars turned into little more than an “infomercial” and the Trump mentors she was assigned offered “no practical advice” and “mostly disappeared.” New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a separate suit in 2013 alleging fraud on the part of the “university,” which was never an accredited institution and awarded no degrees.

Trump’s lawyers have vigorously denied the claims and vowed to contest both suits.

“None of it is true. No one was defrauded,” said Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s general counsel, in an interview about the fraud cases last summer. “The people that take these classes go into it with their eyes open. A lot of people did very well with [Trump University]. A lot of people enjoyed it. But, like everything else, if people don’t put the effort into it [they don’t succeed].”

Trump’s new lead lawyer against Makaeff, Daniel Petrocelli, best known for representing one of the murder victims in a civil suit against O.J. Simpson, declined to answer any questions about the deposition when reached Thursday by Yahoo News. “I don’t think the lawyers should be talking about the case,” Petrocelli said.

A lawyer for Makaeff, who, according to her LinkedIn profile, is a Los Angeles yoga instructor and former model, also declined comment. A “protective order” in the five-year-old case allows either party to keep testimony and documents in the case under seal.

Trump has made little secret of his inclination to strike back hard — on the campaign trail and in the courts — against anybody who opposes him. But the secret deposition in the San Diego case calls attention to the danger that a Trump presidency could turn into what one lawyer who has sued Trump called a “litigation circus” in which a sitting president would be forced to submit to multiple depositions and even jury trials as a result of ongoing civil lawsuits.

Little noticed while he has emerged as the Republican frontrunner for president, Trump remains mired in litigation on multiple fronts. In addition to defending the Trump University suits, he has initiated legal action in the past year against restaurateurs and the Univision network after they pulled out of business deals over his comments about Mexican immigrants. He has also recently threatened to sue rival Ted Cruz on the grounds that he is not eligible to be president because he was born in Canada. At a CNN forum Thursday night, in response to a question about his propensity to threaten opponents with lawsuits, Trump replied, in part, “I have wonderful lawyers. I like to send letters.”

Just last week — three days before Makaeff made her court filing — a judge in Washington, D.C., overruled the objections of Trump’s lawyers and ordered him to submit to a deposition in a suit he filed against one of the restaurateurs.

As Yahoo News noted in August, none of these cases would go away were Trump elected president. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that presidents are not immune from civil litigation while in office, rejecting Bill Clinton’s claim that he should not be subjected to a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones.

Presidential candidate Trump gestures at a regional police union meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., in December 2015. (Photo: Charles Krupa/AP)

That ruling would very much apply were there to be a President Trump, said Robert Bennett, who was Clinton’s lawyer in the Jones case. “Given the state of the law, he would be at substantial risk of being embroiled in these lawsuits while serving as president,” said Bennett.

According to Makaeff’s suit, she enrolled in Trump University, which the reality show star launched in 2005 with a promotional YouTube video. Advertisements boasted, “I can turn anyone into a successful real estate investor, including you,” and lured students with lines like, “Are YOU my next apprentice?” and “Learn from my hand-picked experts how you can profit from the largest real estate liquidation in history.”

In her court filing this month, Makaeff’s lawyers say she has been “forced to endure a high stakes and very public battle with Trump … just for standing up to him.” The businessman’s “aggressive tactics,” they wrote, include subjecting her to four “grueling” depositions, “taunting” her in the media, threatening to sue her lawyers and countersuing her for defamation. That last case, a so-called SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) suit, was rejected by a judge who also ordered Trump to pay her $800,000 in legal bills — an order Trump is contesting. The filing says Makaeff’s health and job prospects have suffered and she now wishes to let the other plaintiffs in the case “carry this ball over the goal line.”