Second in a series of occasional articles examining how Donald Trump’s ascendance and early moves have altered expectations and reality, here and abroad.
WASHINGTON — President Trump, who has struggled to press his agenda in Washington but has shown a knack for unsettling opponents and triggering protests, has also become an unprecedented lightning rod for federal lawsuits filed by plaintiffs across the country seeking court relief on an unusually broad array of issues.
Trump has been sued 134 times in federal court since he was sworn into office, according to a Globe tally based on federal court databases, nearly three times the number of his three predecessors in their early months combined.
The lawsuits include green card holders trying to get into the United States after his travel ban on seven majority-Muslim countries; cities like San Francisco, Richmond, and Seattle suing over a plan to withhold funds from ”sanctuary’’ cities; and even a woman from Quincy, Mass., who went to court contending that the president’s actions have caused “loss of enjoyment of life.”
The dramatic uptick in litigation — Barack Obama faced 26 suits at this point in his first year, while George W. Bush had seven, and Bill Clinton, 15 — is further evidence of the unsettled era ushered in by Trump’s election and the intense fallout stemming from his early executive actions. Court filings may not be as visible as demonstrations on the National Mall, but they ultimately could exert a more lasting check on his executive power.
“In a courtroom, it’s not the loudest voice that prevails. You can’t tweet your way out of the courtroom,” said Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, a Democrat who achieved one of the biggest legal victories against Trump by halting a travel ban targeting the seven majority-Muslim countries.
Almost all presidents become targets for litigation after implementing controversial policies. What’s different now is how widely and often Trump is being challenged, and so soon in his administration. Besides the novelty of the sheer volume of cases, the nature of these actions also spans a broad gamut of grievances, some based on his unique position as a real estate titan who also occupies the Oval Office.
A wine bar near the Trump hotel in Washington has sued him, saying he is exercising an unfair competitive advantage because diplomats and lobbyists are booking functions at his hotel to curry favor with him. A group of prominent lawyers filed a separate suit, saying Trump, by retaining ties to his family firm, which operates his hotels and other properties, was violating a constitutional clause that prevents presidents from accepting money from foreign governments.
Mostly, though, major constitutional issues dominate the burgeoning docket. With Republicans in control of the executive and legislative branches of government, interest groups, attorneys general, and individuals have been increasingly turning toward the judicial branch to impede a president they believe is pushing the legal limits of his office.
The result is a series of fierce court battles that raise strong constitutional questions but which Trump and his allies — as they have been handed a series of defeats in the early rounds — have portrayed as partisan bias in the courts.
The frenzied court action also highlights the stakes for any future Supreme Court nominations. Trump has appealed several of the early federal District Court decisions against him, which could wind up before the high court. His selection of Justice Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Antonin Scalia maintained the status quo in the court’s ideological balance; future vacancies may present him with an opportunity to tilt the balance further to the right.
“You have a Republican executive branch, and Republicans control Congress,” said Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin, a Democrat who successfully challenged Trump’s revised travel ban. “Right now it seems like the courts are the only place we can go to uphold the Constitution or the laws of the United States.”
The lawsuits have been filed from every corner of the United States. The biggest driver was Trump’s move, in his first week in office, to try to ban immigrants and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries.
Attorneys flocked to airports in Boston and New York, Los Angeles and Chicago and began filing lawsuits on behalf of Iranians, Syrians, and Iraqis who were trying to get into the United States.
The lawsuit Ferguson filed in Washington state — which his staff was preparing for even before Trump took office, given his threats of a Muslim ban during the campaign — resulted in a judge’s order that halted the travel ban.
For civil rights attorneys, it was a moment that mobilized them in a way that they haven’t seen even in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when the Bush administration expanded its use of surveillance, torture, and no-fly lists.
“While there was some pushback then, there wasn’t the level of pushback we’re seeing right now, both in terms of the number of courts and people willing to go to the courts and file challenges,” said Ajmel Quereshi, assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “I don’t think it’s going to die down.”
Even conservative legal specialists are concerned that Trump’s early moves may have resulted in a legal morass that will tie a big part of his agenda up in the courts for months, if not years.
“They rolled out an executive order that was poorly drafted, then poorly executed, then poorly defended,” said Jonathan Turley, a conservative legal scholar who was the lead counsel in a suit filed by the US House challenging the constitutionality of Obama’s health care law.
“It was a perfect storm, and it caused lasting damage to the administration,” he added. “And because of the lack of a strategy it triggered more lawsuits. It was a target-rich environment . . . and the Justice Department was thrown into court with very little warning.”
Several cities challenged an executive order Trump signed aimed at denying federal grants to so-called sanctuary cities that refuse local cooperation to federal immigration authorities from going after undocumented immigrants.
A federal judge in San Francisco last month issued a temporary ruling that blocks the Trump administration from moving forward with the policy, finding merit in the cities’ argument that Trump was exercising power beyond the legal authority of his office.
“This is why we have courts — to halt the overreach of a president and an attorney general who either don’t understand the Constitution or chose to ignore it,” San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, a Democrat, said after the ruling.
The White House and the Department of Justice both declined to comment for this article. But previously, administration officials have minimized the decisions from the courts, and in some cases they are continuing to pursue appeals. After the sanctuary cities ruling, White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said the Ninth Circuit in California was “going bananas.”
Presidents are often forced to defend their actions in court, challenges to their interpretation of executive powers, enforcement of regulations, and laws passed by Congress. Obama was challenged on the constitutionality of his health care law by well-organized groups of Republican lawyers and attorneys general.
“I go to the office in the morning, I sue Barack Obama, and then I go home,” Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who was previously attorney general of Texas, used to frequently say.
Scott Pruitt, when he was attorney general of Oklahoma, led challenges to a series of Environmental Protection Agency regulations designed to combat climate change. He is now the Trump administration’s head of the EPA.
One key distinction is that while Obama often used executive powers to expand rights to more Americans, many of Trump’s policies have taken them away. That makes it easier for groups and individuals to have legal standing in a courtroom to allege that they are being harmed.
“The Obama litigation, there were fewer cases but they tended to be more substantive. They tended to be brought by states,” Turley said. “Trump is facing a different situation. It’s death by a thousand paper cuts. Every group, every aggrieved person, is filing lawsuits.”
Some of the lawsuits filed against Trump are frivolous and will likely be tossed out by the courts. So far, 69 out of the 134 lawsuits have been dismissed, although nearly half of the dismissed cases were related to the travel ban. Many of those cases became moot when the Trump administration said the executive order would not apply to those with green cards.
“Courts sometimes play the role of a Hail Mary pass in football,” Turley said. “Once people lose an election, some people try to achieve the same results through the courts.”
One Maryland resident filed a suit saying that the new president was going to prevent him from getting the health care he needs to treat a wide range of ailments.
A prisoner in Oregon filed a suit saying that, as a result of the election, “my health has deteriorated, I now have anxiety issues, depression, can’t sleep through the night.” He wants $1 billion from Trump “so as to act as a deterrent towards this type of behavior by the defendant or others like him that want to make a mockery out of the United States of America, its Constitution and laws, and its political process.”
“The person occupying the White House is a Russian spy,” Jordan J. Glogau of Nanuet, N.Y., charges in a suit filed in March. “I want the election overturned.”
Rossi Wade of Quincy, Mass., accused Trump of violating her rights with “mental cruelty, loss of enjoyment of life, emotional damages and abuse of power.” She has gone from sleeping four hours a night to two, she claims.
“I have experienced loss of enjoyment of life,” she wrote, in her complaint filed six weeks ago in federal court. “I have been tormented by the thought of him, as well as sight and the sound of his voice frightens me. I am unable to sleep, focus, or believe in a secure future for myself and daughter.”
Wade has requested a jury trial. She did not return several messages seeking comment.
A notable absence from the list of plaintiffs is Trump himself. He came into office as the most litigious president in history. He was involved with nearly 4,100 lawsuits, according to a USA Today tally, and often used the courts as an arm of his business empire. He sued journalists for challenging his net worth, fought off allegations of sexual misconduct, and even sued two brothers who were using their own last name — Trump — for their business.
“When I get sued, I take it right — just take it all the way,” Trump said during the campaign. “You know what happens? If you settle suits, you get sued more.”
Some of the suits filed since his inauguration have challenged his business ties. A suit filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics alleges that Trump is in violation of the Emoluments Clause, which prohibits presidents from accepting payments from foreign governments. Trump has called the case “totally without merit.”
“We’ve never had a president with the kind of foreign financial entanglements that we have with Donald Trump,” said Deepak Gupta, one of the lead attorneys on that case. “And then you compound that with the secrecy surrounding those entanglements.”
Even if the group doesn’t prevail, Gupta said, the legal challenge could force Trump’s businesses to provide further details about its foreign dealings, or Trump to release his tax returns, which he has refused to do.
“Some of these are quite serious and they go to fundamental questions of the legitimacy of the presidency and the actions that he’s taken,” Gupta said. “You’d be hard-pressed to identify a president in American history who was as quickly and comprehensively checked by the judiciary as this one.”
Ferguson, the Washington attorney general, said that he met with his staff before Trump’s inauguration to tell them he had four areas he wanted to focus on challenging the new president: immigration, civil rights, the environment, and consumer protections. After winning the initial case on the travel ban, his team is now examining another executive order, about reviewing national monuments like the vast swath of Maine woodlands officially protected by Obama’s order. He said he is in regular contact with other Democratic attorney generals, who are largely following a playbook used by their Republican counterparts over the past eight years.
“I think it’s the new normal for attorneys general, regardless of political affiliation . . . that we’ll see AGs closely scrutinizing actions by every president,” Ferguson said. “I don’t see that being dialed back in the future. Is it a change from 10 years ago? You bet. But I don’t think that gets dialed back.”