Column: These are the lawsuits that could really cause heartburn for Donald Trump

Donald Trump waved as he arrived at a Washington law office Thursday for a deposition in his lawsuit against celebrity chef Geoffrey Zakarian.
(AFP/Getty Images)

That curious silence you may have detected in the fabric of public discourse Thursday had a simple explanation: Donald Trump was off the campaign trail. Instead, he was locked behind the doors of a Washington, D.C., law firm, giving a deposition in a lawsuit.

Trump filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Geoffrey Zakarian, the celebrity chef and restaurateur. Zakarian had pulled out of a deal to open a restaurant in Washington’s Old Post Office building, which Trump is renovating as a luxury hotel, shortly after Trump made bigoted remarks about Mexican immigrants. The remarks, which Zakarian maintains would make it impossible to attract the staff and clientele necessary for the restaurant’s success, came as part of Trump’s announcement that he was running for president — as it happens, one year to the day before his deposition.

Only Mr. Trump made the statements that led to this lawsuit; only Mr. Trump knows why he made those statements and what he meant by them.

— Lawyers for restaurateur Geoffrey Zakarian, regarding Trump’s statements about Mexican immigrants


It’s proper to take another look at those remarks, since they’re at the center of not one but two lawsuits against eateries that pulled out of the Trump project: Zakarian’s and another restaurant planned by Washington celebrity chef Jose Andres.

Here’s what Trump said on June 16, 2015:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

The lawsuits over Trump University, an alleged scam, are getting the lion’s share of publicity in the category of Trumpian legal proceedings, but the Washington restaurant cases are notable because of how they directly relate to issues raised by his presidential campaign. First, insofar as the remarks about Mexicans date to the very inception of the campaign, they’ve played a big role all year in defining that campaign as one based on bigotry, immigrant-bashing and nativism.

Second, the lawsuits are entwined with Trump’s claim to be an extraordinarily successful hands-on entrepreneur whose name is the very definition of glamour and class. Among Trump’s claims in both lawsuits is that he, in fact, had nothing much to do with the hotel development, which he turned over to his son and daughter, Donald Jr. and Ivanka. Therefore, he says, nothing he has said personally could possibly be relevant to the fortunes of his business tenants.

But it’s also true that executives in Trump’s organization could see trouble brewing as soon as the utterances left their boss’ mouth. According to court filings, after an executive in Andres’ firm, ThinkFoodGroup, emailed a complaint about them to Ivanka, another Trump executive predicted in an internal communication that Trump’s campaign speeches would be a continuing cross to bear: “Ugh,” he wrote. “This is not surprising and would expect that this will not be the last we hear of it. At least for formal, prepared speeches, can someone vet going forward? Hopefully the Latino community does not organize against us more broadly in DC / across Trump properties.”

Within weeks of Trump’s announcement, Zakarian and Andres announced they were pulling out of the Old Post Office project. Trump sued both and seized their deposits — about $250,000 from ThinkFoodGroup and close to $500,000 from Zakarian’s company, CZ-National. Since then the war of words between them and Trump has shifted mostly to D.C. Superior Court, where both cases are being heard.

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In a legal filing in February reported by the Washington Post, Andres said that Trump’s comments “essentially torpedoed” his restaurant, which the Post described as a “212-seat, 9,000-square-foot dining room,” expected to cost $7 million to trick out in travertine limestone and gold trim. Suddenly, Andres asserted in the filing, he was “confronted with the task of recruiting Hispanics and Hispanophiles to work at a place closely identified with a man whose statements had made him a pariah for the great majority of the Hispanic community.”

Zakarian says in legal papers filed in February that Trump’s remarks, made “to pander to a particular political segment,” were made “with absolutely no regard to the effect they would have” on Zakarian’s ability to run a restaurant in “a project that bears Mr. Trump’s name and that is intertwined with him and his brand.”

If Trump has grounds to claim damages from the restaurateurs, apparently they rest on the absence of an explicit morals clause in the leases that would hold Trump responsible for the image of the hotel project. The restaurateurs say that responsibility is implicit in the linkage between Trump’s name and reputation and the success of the hotel.

The most interesting aspect of the legal battle is the lengths to which Trump has gone to avoid testifying. He sought to quash Zakarian’s deposition demand by asserting that he had no “unique, first-hand knowledge of the facts and issues in dispute” that couldn’t be learned from his underlings — after all, his lawyers said, “there is no dispute that Mr. Trump made these comments.” Zakarian’s only goal, Trump’s lawyers said, “is to harass him.”

Zakarian responded that Trump is indisputably at the center of the case. He claimed to be personally involved in the hotel development and he personally signed the bank order seizing Zakarian’s deposit. Furthermore, “only Mr. Trump made the statements that led to this lawsuit; only Mr. Trump knows why he made those statements and what he meant by them; and only Mr. Trump knows whether he considered their impact” on Zakarian’s rights as a tenant.

D.C. Court Judge Brian F. Holeman agreed. He ruled that Trump is “a critical witness in this case,” and gave short shrift to Trump’s argument that as a presidential candidate, he’s too busy to take time out for a deposition. After all, Holeman said, Trump is the one who brought the lawsuit in the first place. He doesn’t get a pass because he “ ‘may have a busy schedule’ as a result of seeking public office.”

That won’t be the end of it. A second D.C. judge is poised to rule in the next two weeks over whether the Andres case can move forward.

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10:55 a.m.: This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Andres’ name.