Donald Trump is wildly litigious. And he (or his wife) is as likely to be a plaintiff in a lawsuit (the one doing the suing) as the defendant.
There is nothing about Donald Trump – and there will be nothing about his presidency – that isn’t tragically tangled up with his malignant narcissism. We’ve had presidents with personality disorders before (Richard Nixon comes immediately to mind); one might even argue that any serious ambition to ascend to the pinnacle of human power requires some kind of personality disorder. But we’ve never had the kind of walking, talking personification of the DSM-5 sitting behind the Resolute Desk that we’ll have sitting there after January 20.
Malignant narcissism involves an inability to empathize with others; the malignant narcissist sees himself as the only worthy being in existence. Other humans are mere stage props, to be used or discarded as necessary. The only useful purpose served by others, as far as the malignant narcissist is concerned, is the provision of what psychologists call “narcissistic supply” – the requisite diet of adoration, obedience, and special favors around which he constructs the outward expression of himself (or, more precisely, his self.)
It’s all, unfortunately, a cover for deep-seated insecurity and even self-loathing – usually the results of neglect, tumult, or abuse during early childhood. And one defining symptom is this: the malignant narcissist sees even the slightest affront – even the mildest criticism – as an acute psychic injury. Put another way, the malignant narcissist sees himself constantly as being under attack. This causes him to lash out in retaliation, trying to inflict disproportionate pain and suffering as retribution. (Remember: the malignant narcissist does not feel the pain of others, so the infliction of this pain is of no moment to him. There is no conscience in play; one might call it, instead, pure evil.)
Thus was Donald Trump built for litigiousness. When a person has a gripe with Trump, it’s often necessary to sue him; one will get no redress through any process that requires Trump to say, hey, I might have been in the wrong. He is never, after all, in the wrong. And if you cause Trump psychic injury, especially publicly, even by mildly criticizing him or making fun of him without any malice, you can expect to see him suing you – or at least threatening to. To simplify, Trump is a defendant because he’s never wrong and a plaintiff because every offense against him is intolerable.
Today, CNN posted a story about the cases in which Trump presently finds himself embroiled. It’s an okay read that identifies what its author finds to be “the most interesting cases.” But it represents a small sample of what’s to come. (The likelihood that no more women will emerge to accuse Trump of sexual assault hovers somewhere around zero.)
Seeing as how we’ve never had a president who sues or gets sued about once every moon cycle, Americans might be asking themselves, is this any way to run a country? If he stays true to his word, Trump will be shoulder-deep by January 21 in his projects to build walls, ban religions, and dissolve sacrosanct alliances. Can we really expect him to do all that between depositions?
The case has been made before that, at least as to being the defendant in a lawsuit, the president should be immune from personal liability while in office – that any such lawsuit can wait a few years, until the president isn’t so busy anymore with all his projects.
That case was Clinton v Jones. As we explained before,
In Clinton v Jones, the Supreme Court decided that a president is not immune from personal liability in the context of a run-of-the-mill civil lawsuit if that lawsuit involves conduct that happened before he was president [or] had nothing at all to do with his job as president. In the (Bill) Clinton case, the allegation was that Bubba, while Governor of Arkansas, invited a guest (Jones) to his hotel suite at a Little Rock hotel, “dropped trou,” and then proceeded to make certain lewd suggestions as to what might happen next. These allegations did indeed seem to implicate conduct that happened before Bubba was president and had nothing to do with his job as president. So the Supreme Court allowed the suit against Clinton to proceed without delay.
Republican appointees to the Supreme Court who voted to hold a Democrat (Bill Clinton) to account for his non-presidential transgressions wouldn’t change their minds about presidential liability just because the president who now stands to pay the price is a Republican. Would they?
Maybe. (And maybe, at some point, they should.) The Supreme Court’s decision in Clinton v Jones betrayed a fantastical view of the nature of litigation that was unworthy of anybody (like a US Supreme Court justice) who calls himself or herself a lawyer. As lawyers themselves, the Chimps can recount many a conversation wherein a client told us that there is only one thing worse, in his or her estimation, than death, the dissolution of a love relationship, or public speaking: litigation. And it really is that awful. Litigation is emotional violence; it is war. Anxiety, depression, and misery have no better friend than that beast called litigation. Above all else, litigation is a time-suck. It eats time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and it snacks on time in between.
In Clinton v Jones, the Court penned one of the most embarrassing prophesies in the history of American jurisprudence:
As we have already noted, in the more than 200 year history of the Republic, only three sitting Presidents have been subjected to suits for their private actions. If the past is any indicator, it seems unlikely that a deluge of such litigation will ever engulf the Presidency. As for the case at hand, if properly managed by the [trial judge], it appears to us highly unlikely to occupy any substantial amount of [the President’s] time.
That was just plain idiotic. There is no such thing as litigation that does not “occupy a substantial amount of [a litigant’s] time.” This occupying of a substantial amount of any litigant’s time seems to be especially predictable in the context of a president of the United States, against whom (or, in the case of a litigious narcissist like Trump, by whom) any legal accusation will be the rightful object of boundless intrigue and speculation. And, as history has now taught, what did the allegations and repercussions surrounding Clinton v Jones take up except the entire second term of a sitting US president?
But Trump is a bit of a different creature. He is so accustomed to being a party to litigation that it likely phases him far less than it would phase a normal and uncorrupted human, like, say, Barack Obama. Maybe Trump has so incorporated litigation time into his daily routine that it will not, after all, be so disruptive. And at a time when the media seems utterly incompetent to expose and police the serial scandals likely to emerge under a President Trump, maybe it would be wise, as a matter of public policy, to make courts available to expose and police those scandals.
If Clinton v Jones remains good law, Trump’s presidency, beset as it will likely be by the constant demand for sworn testimony and the constant onslaught of scandalous accusations, is unlikely to survive it. Hm. Maybe it was a wise decision after all.