As the presidential race continues to heat up, a new legal analysis released today by University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law professor Christopher L. Peterson outlines why there is a legally sufficient case to impeach Republican nominee Donald Trump under the U.S. Constitution on charges related to fraud and racketeering for prior conduct if he is elected in November.
In an analysis titled “Trump University and Presidential Impeachment,” Peterson explores Trump’s actions as the leader of Trump University, a for-profit business founded in 2005 where students spent upwards of $30,000 to learn real estate development skills. Trump University advertised curriculum and instructors chosen by Trump, promising students a high-caliber and selective experience. In fact, according to Peterson, Trump University was an unaccredited and unlicensed series of get-rich-quick seminars provided by traveling salesmen. The school closed in 2010 and lawsuits—including one filed by the state of New York alleging Trump tricked students out of $40 million—are ongoing. (Two class action cases in California are also pending). Peterson asserts that Trump’s pending consumer protection lawsuits for fraud and racketeering will cast a shadow over his presidency if Trump wins the election and possibly be legally permissible grounds for impeachment should he be elected to the White House.
Peterson explains that under the U.S. Constitution, presidents can be impeached for bribery, treason or other high crimes and misdemeanors. He argues that fraud and racketeering—both of which are alleged as civil claims against Trump in the pending lawsuits—may qualify as impeachable high crimes or misdemeanors under the U.S. Constitution.
“In the United States, it is illegal for businesses to use false statements to convince consumers to purchase their services,” explains Peterson. “The evidence indicates that Trump University used a systemic pattern of fraudulent representations to trick thousands of families into investing in a program that can be argued was a sham.”
“Fraud and racketeering are serious crimes that legally rise to the level of impeachable acts,” Peterson adds.
Among points raised in Peterson’s analysis:
- Fraud and racketeering are serious crimes. Both fraud and racketeering are considered felonies under state and federal law. First-degree fraud is punishable by up to four years in prison in Trump’s home state of New York. Racketeering is punishable by up to 20 years in prison under federal law.
- Civil cases can legally inform Congress on whether impeachment is justified. The U.S. Constitution has never required criminal conviction prior to impeachment proceedings.
- Impeachment for pre-incumbency conduct is legally permissible under the U.S. Constitution. Nothing in the Constitution’s text requires impeachable conduct to have occurred while the president is in office. The framers rejected alternative formulations of impeachable offenses that included limitations to incumbent activity.
Peterson’s analysis is among the first from a legal scholar offering an objective and professional analysis of these issues. Unlike other political issues currently subject to debate, the legal claims of fraud and racketeering in the Trump University cases have survived early judicial scrutiny and are likely to proceed to trial. Peterson’s research focuses on the Trump University cases—and not on the background of other presidential candidates—because the legal issues facing Trump align with his academic expertise.
A recognized authority on consumer protection cases, Peterson has frequently testified in Congressional hearings and has presented his research to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Federal Reserve Board of Governors and at the White House in both Democratic and Republican administrations.
Peterson’s books include the Thompson/West casebook Consumer Law: Cases and Materials and Taming the Sharks: Towards a Cure for the High Cost Credit Market which won the American College of Consumer Financial Services Lawyers’ outstanding book of the year prize. He is a consumer fellow of the American Bar Association’s Consumer Financial Services Committee. He is a recipient of the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators’ Consumer Advocate of the Year award and the Department of Defense’s Office of the Secretary of Defense Award for Excellence—both bestowed in recognition of his role in promoting an Act of Congress and subsequently implementing regulations that protect military service members from predatory lending practices.
Peterson is currently the John J. Flynn Endowed Professor of Law at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law where he teaches contracts, commercial law and consumer protection courses. From 2012 to 2016, he served as a special advisor in the Office of the Director at the United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, in the Office of Legal Policy for Personnel and Readiness in the United States Department of Defense and as Senior Counsel for Enforcement Policy and Strategy in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Office of Enforcement.
He is available for media interviews about his latest research on Trump. Peterson’s research is available here.