TRUMP ROUTINELY DESTROYS E-MAILS AND EVIDENCE
DONALD TRUMP’S COMPANIES DESTROYED EMAILS IN DEFIANCE OF COURT ORDERS
By Kurt Eichenwald
Over the course of decades, Donald Trump’s companies have systematically destroyed or hidden thousands of emails, digital records and paper documents demanded in official proceedings, often in defiance of court orders. These tactics—exposed by a Newsweek review of thousands of pages of court filings, judicial orders and affidavits from an array of court cases—have enraged judges, prosecutors, opposing lawyers and the many ordinary citizens entangled in litigation with Trump. In each instance, Trump and entities he controlled also erected numerous hurdles that made lawsuits drag on for years, forcing courtroom opponents to spend huge sums of money in legal fees as they struggled—sometimes in vain—to obtain records.
This behavior is of particular import given Trump’s frequent condemnations of Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, for having deleted more than 30,000 emails from a server she used during her time as secretary of state. While Clinton and her lawyers have said all of those emails were personal, Trump has suggested repeatedly on the campaign trail that they were government documents Clinton was trying to hide and that destroying them constituted a crime. The allegation—which the FBI concluded was not supported by any evidence—is a crowd-pleaser at Trump rallies, often greeted by supporters chanting, “Lock her up!”
PERHAPS THE WORST LEGAL CASE involving Trump and his companies hiding and destroying emails and other records involved real estate developer Cordish Cos., which, through an affiliate called Power Plant Entertainment LLC, built two American Indian casinos in Florida. In January 2005, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts sued in a state court almost immediately after the opening of the casinos, which both operate under the Hard Rock brand. In his lawsuit, Trump claimed that the companies had unlawfully conspired with one of his former associates to cheat him out of the deal; he argued that the projects should be turned over to him.
Negotiations with the tribe and construction of the casinos had taken many years, raising the possibility that the state’s four-year statute of limitations had passed before Trump finally got around to filing his lawsuit. If Power Plant could prove Trump knew in early 2000 that his former associate was working on the Hard Rock deal, the case would be thrown out of court. The clock here for the statute of limitations starts ticking down when plaintiffs learn they have been swindled.
Trump claimed he learned about the deal in January 2001, about the time of the groundbreaking and more than three years before he filed suit. However, the defendants contended he had been informed of the projects in 1999. Trump offered no evidence in support of his contention except his word, so the opposing lawyers filed extensive discovery demands, seeking emails, computer files, calendars and other records that might prove he knew about the casino deal before 2000.
A full year into the case, Trump and his company, Trump Hotels, had produced only a single box of documents, many of which were not relevant—and no emails, digital files, phone records, calendars or even documents Trump lawyers had promised to turn over. Interrogatories were still unanswered. Lawyers for Power Plant obtained a court order compelling Trump and his company to comply with the discovery demands and hand over the relevant information and documents.
In a March 2006 response, Trump’s lawyers argued that the emails and other electronic documents had not been produced because the company didn’t have them. They claimed it had no servers until 2001—the year Trump claimed he had learned of the Power Plant project. They also claimed Trump Hotels had no policy regarding retaining documents until 2003. In other words, they hadn’t turned over any emails because no emails had been saved on a Trump server.
Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld reacted with near disbelief. “I don't have the patience for this,” he said. “This has been going on too long to have to listen—and I don't mean to be disrespectful—to this double-talk. There has to be an attitude adjustment from the plaintiff.”
Streitfeld ordered Trump executives to file sworn statements attesting to how their email systems had worked from 1996 onward. In response, Trump Hotels filed an affidavit from one of its information technology managers stating that it had had no servers prior to 2001.
That was false and by deposing numerous IT specialists with two Trump companies—the Trump Organization and Trump Hotels—lawyers for Power Plant gradually chipped away at it. Finally, during a deposition nine months after he had signed the deceptive affidavit, the same Trump executive admitted his assertions in it were untrue. In fact, an IBM Domino server for emails and other files had been installed in 1999, the same year witnesses for Power Plant contended that Trump had learned of the casino deal. Prior to that, as early as 1997, the Trump corporations used servers off-site operated by a company called Jersey Cape, according to sworn testimony by one of the Trump IT experts; the following year, the Trump Organization and Trump Hotels moved to another email provider, Technology 21.
These startling revelations changed nothing, however, because there was no trove of documents. The Trump records had been destroyed. Despite knowing back in 2001 that Trump might want to file a lawsuit, his companies had deleted emails and other records without checking if they might be evidence in his case. Beginning around 2003, the company wiped clear the data from everyone’s computers every year. Lawyers for Trump Hotels had never sent out the usual communication issued during litigation instructing employees to stop destroying records that might be related to this case. The deletions continued, and backup tapes were reused—thus erasing the data they held. Power Plant lawyers also discovered that after the lawsuit was filed, Trump Hotels disposed of a key witness’s computer without preserving the data on it.
In subsequent filings, Power Plant maintained that Trump Hotels had intentionally deceived the court in its March 2006 filing when it claimed it had located no emails relevant to the case because, at that point, it had not yet conducted any searches of its computer system. Trump Hotels executives did not instruct their IT department to examine backup computer tapes until 2007, and even then the job wasn’t done, depositions show. And when computer specialists finally attempted to electronically locate any relevant documents that had survived the flurry of deletions, the procedures were absurdly inadequate. While looking for relevant documents, the technology team was told to use only two search terms—the name of the tribe and the last name of the former Trump associate. So even if there was an email that stated, “Donald Trump learned the full details of the Hard Rock casino deal in Florida in 1999,” it would not have been found by this search.
With all this proof that Trump Hotels had ignored every court order and filed false documents, Power Plant asked the judge either to impose sanctions or allow its own expert to search for relevant digital records. Trump Hotels argued it had done nothing improper, although its lawyers acknowledged having made some mistakes. Still, Streitfeld ordered Trump Hotels to make its servers and computer systems available for inspection by a computer forensics consulting firm. That review showed there was no digital data in the computers, servers or backup tapes prior to January 2001—the very month Trump claimed to have learned of the Florida casino deal.
With the likelihood of sanctions growing, Trump Hotels dropped the suit a few months later, in part because of the company’s financial troubles. A company involved in the Power Plant case agreed to purchase one of Trump’s struggling casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and included as part of the deal a requirement that the litigation be ended.
THIS REVIEW OF TRUMP’S many decades of abusing the judicial system, ignoring judges, disregarding rules, destroying documents and lying about it is not simply a sordid history lesson. Rather, it helps explain his behavior since he declared his candidacy. He promised to turn over his tax returns and his health records—just as he promised to comply with document discovery requirements in so many lawsuits—then reneged. As a result, he has left a sparse evidentiary trail that can be used to assess his wealth, his qualifications for the presidency or even his fitness. Should voters choose him to be the next U.S. president, he will enter the Oval Office as a mystery, a man who has repeatedly flouted the rules. He has solemnly told the country to trust him while refusing to produce any records to prove whether he speaks the truth or has utter contempt for it.