Two months ago, I returned home from a summer family road trip to a message from Michael Barbaro, a reporter with the New York Times. He had some questions about a real estate lawsuit my firm had handled. Little did I know at the time, but returning his call would help ignite a media firestorm that catapulted my wife and law partner Elizabeth Beck into the national spotlight, prompted Donald Trump to emerge from his tower lair to slander her on national television with a series of outrageous fabrications, and ended up impacting the most-watched U.S. presidential primary debate in history.
It all started four years ago with a simple request to take a prearranged lunch break at a deposition of Mr. Trump, so that Elizabeth could use a breast pump in private, as she had been doing all week in other depositions. For the uninitiated, a breast pump is a medical device that enables nursing mothers to continue breastfeeding after they return to work. Understanding how such a mundane request could evolve into a political flashpoint entails a walk through the latest, ugly chapter in American politics.
The Trump Real Estate Lawsuit
To begin, we need to go back in time to the lawsuit the New York Times reporter wanted to know more about when he called my office. The case was filed in 2009 and involved a failed Trump-branded condominium hotel project in Fort Lauderdale. Donald Trump had advertised to our clients he was the project’s developer when in fact he only licensed his name. In an effort to recover our clients’ down payments, we brought suit against a number of parties behind the project, including Mr. Trump and his organization.
Upon returning Mr. Barbaro’s call, I was fully expecting to discuss Mr. Trump’s long record of questionable business practices. So, I was more than a little surprised when he explained he was reading through a transcript of a deposition Elizabeth had taken of Mr. Trump on November 16, 2011, and wanted to know more about a strange incident that had occurred that day – an event which will always be emblazoned in my mind.
A Week of Depositions In New York
It was the week before Thanksgiving in Manhattan. Elizabeth and I had flown in to take a series of depositions in the Trump lawsuit. It was an especially busy time for us. We were new parents. Our daughter Vesper had arrived in August, and my mother was babysitting her in Miami. It was Elizabeth’s first trip away from home since giving birth. Because she was breastfeeding Vesper, she had to use a breast pump regularly in order to maintain her milk supply, avoid the risk of infection, and alleviate pain.
Before leaving for New York, we advised Mr. Trump’s legal team of Elizabeth’s need for breaks to administer a medical procedure in private. No one objected. The entire week of depositions was scheduled to take place at the office of Mr. Trump’s law firm, Kramer Levin. Mr. Trump was slated to be deposed on Wednesday, November 16th. The depositions on Monday and Tuesday proceeded without incident and included breaks, on each day, for Elizabeth to pump.
At the conclusion of Tuesday’s session, one of Mr. Trump’s in-house lawyers, Alan Garten, approached and asked that we move Donald Trump’s deposition the next morning to the Trump Tower in place of Kramer Levin. Elizabeth and I quickly conferred and decided against moving it. We wanted to depose Mr. Trump in the formal setting of a law firm, where all the other depositions had taken place, and where our boxes of documents were located. We also wanted to make sure Mr. Trump was giving us his full attention. After we informed Mr. Garten of our decision, he was visibly irritated.
November 16, 2011: The Deposition of Donald Trump
The morning of November 16th started out ordinarily enough. As usual, Elizabeth and I arrived about an hour early to prepare. There were copious documents to examine with Mr. Trump, and we wanted to make sure we had everything in precise order. We reviewed our notes and outlines. The day before, a Kramer Levin paralegal sent the following email to Elizabeth indicating that Mr. Garten had requested a lunch break for Mr. Trump’s deposition.
I recall Elizabeth mentioning to me that morning, as we prepared, that she planned to use the scheduled lunch break to pump, in order to save time.
The deposition was set to begin at 10:30, and Mr. Trump arrived with a minute to spare. Glancing at Elizabeth and me, he asked that we get through the material as quickly as possible. Everyone took their seats around the conference table, with Elizabeth seated directly across from the deponent. The court reporter swore him in. Elizabeth started asking questions.
Almost immediately, I sensed irritation and hostility from Mr. Trump. It was apparent he disliked being away from the Trump Tower and resented being interrogated about one of his failed real estate deals. At one point early into the proceeding, he asked if Elizabeth was “kidding” with a question about how he defines the “construction” of a building. At another point, he called her questions “very stupid” when Elizabeth reminded him to let her finish the questions before talking. (All of this appears in the written transcript below).
Later, he mocked the way Elizabeth pronounced a word. He popped what looked like tic tacs. He stared glumly out the window.
At the time, none of this struck me as cause for concern. Elizabeth and I have taken and defended numerous depositions in our career. Sometimes, a witness will act in an abusive or gruff manner in the hopes that by doing so, the lawyer will speed up the questioning or even better, stop early. We were prepared for this possibility and determined not to be thrown off course. After all, a deponent’s only obligation is to answer the questions truthfully; there is no duty to be particularly nice or civil to the opposing lawyer, and Mr. Trump certainly wasn’t from the outset.
Mr. Trump Has a Meltdown
But as lunchtime approached, things took a turn for the weird. Mr. Trump’s lead outside counsel, Herman Russomanno, a former president of the Florida Bar, asked for a “one-minute break for the restroom.” (direct quote). Mr. Trump wasn’t having it. “You have to take a one-minute break? Can we go on and finish this? Let’s not take a one-minute break.” (direct quote). Mr. Russomanno stayed in his chair.
As I recall, Mr. Trump’s refusal to allow his own lawyer a break to use the bathroom is what prompted Elizabeth to remind the room that she was going to need a medical break, and she intended to use the prescheduled lunch for this purpose. It was half-past noon by then.
But Mr. Trump still wasn’t having it. No break for Mr. Russomanno, certainly no break for Elizabeth or to eat lunch. When Elizabeth insisted that she needed the break and it was prearranged, he rose from his chair. Mr. Trump’s red-faced, finger-wagging invectives have been widely reported: “You’re disgusting, you’re disgusting!” he yelled when she displayed the breast pump to underscore her urgency. I also remember him calling her “uptight,” referring to me, her husband, as “her boss,” and declaring that we would have to fly back to New York if we wanted to continue deposing him. He then stormed out of the room.
We Wait Around, and Mr. Trump Goes to Florida
And so the deposition of Donald Trump came to an end, at least for that day. We waited around at Kramer Levin for an hour on the off-chance he might have a change of heart and return. He didn’t. As we sat there, my mind turned to the motion I would likely be drafting to ask the court to compel Mr. Trump to continue the deposition and issue sanctions against him for his misconduct. Elizabeth looked tired and didn’t say much. Then we walked back to our hotel and turned our attention to other matters. We had a lot of work to do. There were two more depositions scheduled that week, and we had to prepare for them. Thankfully, they proceeded without a hitch, and we flew back home.
As it turned out, we never had to bring the incident to the court’s attention. Instead, I dashed off the following letter to Mr.Trump’s lawyers threatening to do so.
The mere prospect was enough to get him to fly down at his own expense to West Palm Beach to resume the deposition in March. And it went as it should have gone from the beginning; everyone was polite and it concluded without further incident.
Why Come Forward Now?
So, when I found myself talking to a New York Times reporter about what a witness had said to my wife, off the record, at a deposition almost four years ago, the lawyer in me actually wondered whether it was newsworthy. Poor behavior by a deponent is certainly not unheard of in our profession, and in this case, any legal repercussions from Mr. Trump’s tantrum were mooted by the lawyers’ agreement to continue the deposition in Florida.
But sometimes an event, seemingly mundane at the time, acquires greater significance through later events. Donald Trump is not just a businessman and a reality-TV personality who once lost his cool at a deposition; he is, in 2015, handily leading the race to become the Republican Party’s nominee for president.
Before attending law school, I spent two years pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at Harvard. Part of what drove me as an aspiring political theorist were deep questions about what motivates political leaders, and how these traits reflect the broader values of the society they govern. In his campaign to become our next president, Mr. Trump has projected a tough-guy image predicated on having the courage to say unpleasant truths and refusing to yield to the morally bankrupt forces of “politics as usual.” In this context, the breast-pump incident suggests a massive chink in the suit of armor Mr. Trump is trying to sell to the American public, and perhaps the most direct evidence that his image is just an act.
What kind of world leader totally disintegrates and flees the room when confronted with a medical apparatus and a request to take a break at a mundane legal proceeding?
Looking back with the benefit of four years hindsight, the episode reflects yet another, more personal dimension for Elizabeth and me – our ongoing battle to balance work and parenthood. As owners of a small business, we have been fortunate to have the flexibility to integrate parenthood with our working lives – both of our children have spent many days at our sides, in the office and at home, while we work. Diapers, bottles, and (yes) breast pumps have populated each part of our working/parenting existence. Mr. Trump’s extreme reaction was a stark reminder of how many folks – especially women – must still struggle against outmoded attitudes when navigating the workforce as parents.
But what probably drove our decision to go on the record with the New York Times, more than anything else, was the seriousness with which a substantial segment of the population is taking Mr. Trump’s presidential candidacy. While many pundits are quick to minimize his campaign as a farce or suggest that his star will inevitably fade in favor of an establishment-backed candidate, the poll numbers are hard to ignore. In the end, we felt we had been witness to an event revealing significant information about the character of a legitimate contender for the highest office in the land. And so we felt a responsibility to tell what happened.
The New York Times Breaks the Story. A Media Frenzy Ensues
When Mr. Barbaro got on the phone with Elizabeth, he warned her that media attention following publication in the New York Times might be “intense.” This ultimately didn’t deter her, nor did the thought that she might raise the ire of Mr. Trump, a notoriously vengeful and outspoken billionaire. She decided in the end to follow her own north star in spite of all the reasons not to come forward.
(A side note: where others might be fazed, Elizabeth typically is not. She immigrated to this country from South Korea at the age of three and traveled a road taking her from daughter of a single mother on public assistance, to foster child, to high school teacher in South Central Los Angeles, to Yale Law School graduate, to co-managing partner of her own law firm and passionate advocate on behalf of her clients. Tackling obstacles head on is part of her DNA.)
On July 28, the New York Times article “Under Oath, Donald Trump Shows His Raw Side,” broke on the front page of the website. Soon after, a CNN producer contacted Elizabeth to have her recount her experience. The media maelstrom had begun in earnest and raged full-blast for almost 48 hours. In addition to CNN, Elizabeth appeared on MSNBC (“All In” with Chris Hayes) and several international stations. Hundreds of articles appeared on the Internet, many with their own unique spin on the event and/or political orientation.
Mr. Trump Emerges From the Trump Tower With a Response
Back at our office fielding calls and trying to stay abreast of the rapidly expanding coverage, we frequently circled back to the CNN website, mainly to see whether and how the Trump camp would respond to Elizabeth’s morning interview. Around 2 p.m., a new item grabbed my eye with the headline: “Donald Trump: Elizabeth Beck is a ‘horrible person.’” I clicked on the video. There was Mr. Trump being interviewed in a corner of the Trump Tower lobby. He looked and sounded pissed. My wife, he claimed, is not only a “vicious, horrible person” but “a tough killer in Miami[,] everyone knows she’s a killer. They all hate her.”
As to the incident itself, Mr. Trump started off by claiming he stormed out of the deposition in a furor because Elizabeth not only wanted to breast pump, but breast pump in front of him (?!) (as I recall, besides Mr. Trump, there were six other men in the room that day, including me). But towards the end of the interview, he stated that Elizabeth “made up” the incident. Interestingly, in the New York Times article, Mr. Trump’s lawyer had accused Elizabeth of “seeking to buy time to come up with new questions for Mr. Trump” – a notion which had apparently fallen out of favor by the time CNN came calling. Mr. Trump’s account was fluid and shifting, to say the least. And in any event, none of these tall tales (including the laughable notion that Elizabeth wanted to pump in front of Trump) appear in the lengthy colloquy at the end of the written deposition transcript, where the lawyers, including Mr. Trump’s own outside counsel, tried to make a record of what had just happened.
Mr. Trump’s Lies
It could hardly have shocked us that the Trump Organization would concoct three separate, contradictory, but equally ludicrous falsehoods to deflect attention from Mr. Trump’s behavior that day. His stated political positions over the years show no regard for consistency. Furthermore, through our experience litigating against Mr. Trump and his companies, we have come to expect a marked disdain for the truth. In fact, in 2014, the federal court overseeing our case sanctioned Mr. Trump and his organization for making a false representation in their Rule 26 disclosure – which, as attorneys versed in federal court practice know, is one of the most basic disclosure obligations in federal civil litigation. Below is the order.
Federal judges are often reluctant to issue such sanctions. They are typically reserved for the most egregious violations, in order to preserve the integrity of the judicial system from dishonest litigants and those who disregard the rules of court.
So while it came as no surprise that Mr. Trump would spout a series of fabrications, I was still taken aback by the intensity of vitriol spewed at my wife, with words usually reserved for violent criminals rather than the hard-working mother of two I’ve been married to for 11 years.
Elizabeth was probably most incensed by the accusation that she had “made it up.” She promptly gathered up documentation to bring with her to “All In” on MSNBC, which afforded her the opportunity to make an impassioned rebuttal ending with a plea for voters to seriously scrutinize Mr. Trump’s character.
The Hate Mail
One “perk” of the sudden media spotlight came as a deluge of hate mail from Trump supporters, which arrived in the form of email, voicemail messages, Facebook messages, tweets, and even a couple of anonymous letters delivered by the post office. There were at least three recurrent themes which seem worthy of note based on what they might reveal about the Trump faithful:
1). A deposition is no place for a woman who is breastfeeding;
2). If a lawyer said it, it’s a lie;
3). Those lucky enough to cross Donald Trump’s path should do their best to do as he says and try to make a good impression on him.
The Aftermath: Fox News, the GOP Debates, and a New Ugly Chapter in American Politics?
Practically as soon as we could catch our breath, the interest in the breast pump that stumped Trump gave way to voracious coverage of the first Republican presidential debate on August 6th. However, that strange incident from four years ago cast its shadow even here; five questions into the debate itself, in a moment destined to become enshrined in the annals of American political history, Fox moderator Megyn Kelly looked Mr. Trump in the eye, invoked his history of slanderous comments to women (“fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals”) and questioned whether he had the “temperament of a man we should elect as president.”
After the debate, Elizabeth told me she felt enormous gratitude at that moment, as if Ms. Kelly had taken a heavy baton from her and sprinted forward with it.
As I write, “Trumpism,” as some have called it, appears to be in full force and effect and going strong as ever. Mr. Trump maintains his sizable lead the polls. He is promoting an immigration “plan” based on promptly deporting all illegal immigrants and demanding Mexico pay for a “wall” on the border. He wants to eliminate the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship. His stadium rallies draw supporters numbering in the tens of thousands. While the conventional wisdom continues to insist that this moment too shall pass, there is also a sense that something fundamental has changed in American politics, and that the fascination with Mr. Trump has evolved from entertaining curiosity to something more serious and, perhaps, menacing.
The reality will depend on whether we may still rely on Theodore Roosevelt, when he noted, “[t]he most practical kind of politics is the politics of decency.”
Jared H. Beck has a B.A. from Harvard College, an M.A. from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and a J.D. from Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. His law firm, Beck & Lee in Miami, is dedicated to the practice of business, personal injury and real estate litigation, as well as pursuing the rights and remedies of small businesses, consumers and investors through class actions. He is a member of the Florida and California Bars, and litigates in other U.S. jurisdictions in conjunction with qualified local counsel. Mr. Beck can be reached at 305-234-2060 or firstname.lastname@example.org