The plaintiffs claim Trump had an important role in initiating and condoning violent acts by his security staff. The real estate mogul is trying to preclude deposition by arguing he had nothing to do with the incident, and was not involved in overseeing security.
The lawsuit touches on a bigger issue than one brief scuffle. It questions the extent to which Trump can be held personally responsible for violence allegedly committed by his staff, an unusual position for a presidential contender. Trump's last serious challenger, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), dropped out on Tuesday, clearing the way for the businessman's nomination.
"Trump could be liable even if he did not personally authorize or direct the behavior that's at issue here," said Oscar Chase, a law professor at NYU and civil litigation expert, who was not speaking on behalf of the university. "But it's still going to be important for the plaintiffs to find out exactly what Trump's story is, even if he put in an affidavit that said, 'I have nothing to do with this.'"
He added that plaintiffs are generally entitled to take a deposition and learn more about a defendant's relationship with his or her employees.
A judge isn't expected to weigh in until June, at the earliest. If the judge orders that Trump has to testify, he could still appeal. The plaintiffs want him to appear between June 8 and July 8. (The Trump campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)
A group of human rights activists of Mexican origin, who say they were insulted by Trump's comments about Mexican immigrants, filed the lawsuit in a New York state court last year. They say they were on a public sidewalk outside of Trump Tower in September with large signs — two wore parody Ku Klux Klan outfits — and Trump's team interfered with their lawful protest. They allege security staff shoved one of the activists and threw another toward the sidewalk, and ripped a sign. They also claim Keith Schiller, Trump's director of security, hit one of the activists in the head, an incident that was captured on video. They want damages for pain and suffering and medical expenses.
Trump attorneys say protesters were blocking access to the sidewalk, and NYPD wouldn't do anything when contacted. They also claim Schiller was attacked by an activist after he removed the signs.
This isn't the only lawsuit exploring Trump's personal culpability. A separate group claiming rally attendees assaulted them at a Trump event in Kentucky sued the GOP presidential contender recently, alleging that he incited violence.
Physical altercations at Trump rallies are increasingly common. As of April 7, there were at least 28 reports of physical violence and 61 arrests and citations connected to Trump events. (Most of the arrests were related to protesting activities.) Trump's supporters blame activists for the violence, but Trump has openly encouraged it. He frequently taunts the opposition — going so far as to offer to pay the legal bills for those who beat up tomato-throwing protesters — and he complains police aren't doing enough. His own campaign manager came under fire for forcibly grabbing a reporter.
"This Court should not permit defendant Trump to command his employees from the podium to engage in unlawful acts of violence only to cower behind them when he is called to answer for the conduct he has so publicly directed," the plaintiffs in the New York case wrote in an April 22 court filing.
They point to statements Trump made before and after the September incident, including in August, when Trump directed Schiller to remove Univision reporter Jorge Ramos from a press conference. The plaintiffs claim Trump denied knowing who Schiller was in that case, even though Schiller had been Trump's bodyguard for 16 years. (Trump's legal team wrote last week that Schiller was "at no time" directly an employee of Trump.)
"Mr. Trump obviously has firsthand knowledge of his working relationship with his security guards, and needs to provide that evidence," Roger Bernstein, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told HuffPost.
As Politico reported, Trump has assembled a security force that "at times inflamed the already high tensions around his divisive campaign, rather than defusing them." Trump reportedly paid $110,000 to people associated with a security company called XMark LLC, whose website features photos of guards dressed in SWAT-style gear.
Trump wrote in a March 1 sworn affidavit that Matthew Calamari — whom the campaign had not reported paying, according to last month's Politico story — is in charge of overseeing security, not him. "I was not involved with any of the decision-making with regard to either the hiring or supervision of any of Defendants' security personnel," he wrote.
Trump's legal team has offered to make Calamari and Schiller available for deposition. They said at minimum, the court should allow their depositions to go forward before ordering other witnesses to testify.
NYU's Chase said his view is that Trump publicly making statements against protesters at other rallies is relevant to the case. "It shows a kind of frame of mind that the plaintiffs in this case are alleging," he said. "It's certainly not off the board."
Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist