NEW YORK – As Donald Trump begrudgingly left office this month, the legal shield he has wielded to ward off lawsuits vanished.
Without the legal immunity that protected him while in the White House, the former president faces an abundance of civil and criminal legal peril, over allegations of tax fraud, campaign-finance violations, his role in the catastrophic storming of the US Capitol this month and more.
Arguably the most eager to move forward in the cases against the departed president is Roberta Kaplan, a trailblazing Jewish attorney who has won almost every legal accolade imaginable. Kaplan is taking on president Trump in three suits: representing Mary Trump, the former president’s niece, who alleges she was swindled out of her inheritance worth millions; writer E. Jean Carroll, who filed a defamation case after Trump claimed she was “totally lying” about her statement that he raped her in the mid-1990s; and participants in the multilevel marketing company ACN, who say Trump committed fraud by endorsing the corporation as a promising business opportunity.
The three high-profile cases against the former president are not Kaplan’s first time making headlines. Her career-defining moments include successfully arguing before the US Supreme Court, resulting in the landmark decision to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide.
Kaplan is a former litigation partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, a top Manhattan-based law firm. An observant Jew and a lesbian, she became increasingly interested in advocating for liberal causes and in 2017 formed her own firm – Kaplan, Hecker & Fink – to handle public-interest cases as well as commercial litigation.
The 54-year-old, who participates in a Talmud discussion group on Sunday mornings, was drawn to the legal field because, as she puts it, it’s a good job for going after bullies.
Within months of opening her law firm, the August 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia, rally took place, and without hesitation Kaplan went after the bullies. She is a lead attorney in the case against the organizers of the white supremacist “Unite the Right” rally.
While gearing up to confront another alleged bully, president Trump, Kaplan, who splits her time between Manhattan and a country home she shares with her wife and teenage son, spoke to The Jerusalem Post.
How did you become the go-to lawyer for those suing the former president?
I’m not sure exactly how it happened. The first case we brought was the ACN case, and after we brought that case people started contacting us. I guess it’s like the normal way things like that happen. People read about you, and if they have a similar claim, they give you a call.
Which actions, if any, will Trump be immune to as a former sitting president?
None, at least with respect to actions he took as businessman or outside the scope of his employment as president.
With the nation perhaps more divided than at any time since the Civil War, is there a risk that these lawsuits might stoke further division and anger among the 75 million Americans who voted for Trump?
I’m not a politician. Despite Trump’s statements, I’m not in any kind of conspiracy with the Democratic Party. My job is to represent the interests of my clients. In each of these cases, my clients deserve justice.... [E. Jean Carroll] deserves to have her reputation restored, ACN to get back money they were defrauded, and Mary Trump to get the money that was really stolen by her uncles and aunt when her father died.
Do you think that Trump and his supporters will argue that he cannot get a fair trial in a court in New York or another blue state; before a judge who is a Democrat; or before a jury in a state or county that voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden?
His supporters aren’t permitted make any arguments that a judge will hear in court. As for arguments made by Trump lawyers, I’m pretty familiar with the law on change of venue, and I think in all of these cases, certainly for Mary Trump and ACN, no such request has been made. I don’t think any of those courts or judges would entertain or seriously consider any motion to change venue in those cases.
The argument would be “I’m accused of doing a lot of bad things and a lot of people think I did a lot of bad things, so for that reason it’s not fair to try me in a court for other bad things I allegedly did.” It’s not a credible argument.
We’re talking about courts of law. We’re not talking about social media or even debates in Congress. Courts of law operate under well-defined rules. Those rules will not allow Donald Trump to move his cases to different states.
I understand that you are an observant Jew. With what synagogue and religious movement do you affiliate?
I’m Conservative and a long-standing member of my synagogue. My rabbi is Jan Uhrbach, who is head of the [Block/] Kolker Center [for Spiritual Arts of the Jewish Theological Seminary].
[For security, Kaplan requested the name of her synagogue not be published. Her high-profile cases have led to repeated threats.]
My mother grew up in Park Synagogue in Cleveland, which for a time was the biggest Conservative temple in the country. When I was growing up, my parents joined a Reform synagogue, but then both they and I moved back to Conservative Judaism.
Why do you think Trump is so popular with religious Jews?
I think many Jews, religious or not, supported Trump because of the actions he took with Israel, including moving the [US] Embassy to Jerusalem.
But I think any fair-minded person, in particular any fair-minded Jew, looks at the arc of Jewish history. It would be likely outright dangerous for Jews to align themselves with groups whose supporters include people like the Proud Boys and the QAnon conspiracy believers, because we know where that leads in Jewish history. It does not lead to a good place.