Donald Trump may have reason to fear he is surrounded by political enemies after all.
In the Trump University case, the real estate tycoon has made it abundantly clear in recent days he believes the presiding federal judge, Gonzalo Curiel, is biased against him because of his Mexican heritage and that he should be disqualified.
And as some of Trump’s defenders have argued, the big class-action law firm that is suing him in the case, Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd, is suspect as well: The firm paid Hillary Clinton $225,000 to speak at one of its conferences two years ago.
But it turns out Trump may also want to take a hard look at another party in the case: his own lawyer, Daniel Petrocelli, the renowned litigator best known for bringing a successful wrongful death civil lawsuit against O.J. Simpson.
A review of Petrocelli’s political giving shows that he has been a longtime supporter of Hillary Clinton. Petrocelli’s backing of Clinton dates back more than 16 years, to when he made two donations of $1,000 each to her 2000 Senate campaign, records show. Petrocelli also made another $2,700 contribution (the legal maximum) to Clinton’s presidential campaign on Jan. 11, 2016. That was barely two months after Petrocelli and his law firm, O’Melveny & Myers (whose members have donated $19,923 to Clinton’s coffers) were hired by Trump to defend him in the Trump University suit.
Was Trump aware of the contributions to his rival? Does he believe the donations could compromise his lawyer’s ability to represent him in the case? Yahoo News reported this week that, just last month, Petrocelli had praised a ruling by Judge Curiel and said he had no plans to ask for the judge’s recusal — remarks that appear to contradict Trump’s own statements on the matter.
Neither Alan Garten, executive vice president and general counsel of the Trump Organization, nor Jill Martin, assistant general counsel (both of whom oversee Trump’s defense in the Trump University case) responded to requests for comment Tuesday. Nor did Petrocelli, whose history of political giving also includes donations to Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein — and no Republicans.
Trump (who himself has given to Hillary Clinton’s campaigns in the past and once donated $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation) on Tuesday released a lengthy statement defending Trump University from allegations it overcharged students for worthless courses. “Based on the rulings that I have received in the Trump University civil case, I feel justified in questioning whether I am receiving a fair trial,” he wrote. “Normally, legal issues in a civil case would be heard in a neutral environment. However, given my unique circumstances as nominee of the Republican Party and the core issues of my campaign that focus on illegal immigration, jobs and unfair trade, I have concerns as to my ability to receive a fair trial.”
But were Trump to ever try to argue to the court that his own lawyer was also biased (and therefore his defense had been compromised in the case) it would likely go nowhere, according to Paul Rothstein, a Georgetown University law professor who specializes in civil procedure.
“I think claiming that his lawyer had a conflict of interest because the lawyer donated to Hillary Clinton would have even less chance of legal success than his claim about the judge,” he wrote in an email. But, he added, “they could provide political cover” for Trump were he to lose the case, allowing him to argue that everybody involved — the judge, the plaintiff’s lawyers and even his own counsel — were predisposed to be biased against him.