How did a misfit personal injury law firm end up advising the Trump White House on China policy?
Sign spinners, a paralegal demonstrating her commitment to clients by literally “bending over backwards,” law partners posing with a crash test dummy (“DON’T BE A DUMMY!”), interns in wigs reciting “all the words you can when you think of the word ‘lawyer’,” a woman getting a tattoo with a law firm’s logo, a cat wearing a tinfoil hat, and a law firm sponsoring “Fright Night” at a local casino may seem like cliché marketing ploys typically enlisted by ambulance chasing personal injury attorneys or “Better Call Saul’s” fictional ne’er do well protagonist Jimmy McGill.
But personal injury law firm Berman Law Group, which employs all these marketing tactics and more, is first in line to collect a windfall in fees if the Trump White House makes the unprecedented decision to strip China of its sovereign immunity, thus allowing plaintiffs to seek financial damages from China for its handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.
On Thursday, The Washington Post published an in-depth report on the campaign to press the Trump administration to pursue a punitive strategy towards China. “In private, Trump and aides have discussed stripping China of its ‘sovereign immunity,’ aiming to enable the U.S. government or victims to sue China for damages,” said the Post.
Central to that strategy is Berman Law Group, the first law firm to file a class action lawsuit against China for damages inflicted on Americans by COVID-19. The Florida-based law firm, which appears to have specialized in personal injury lawsuits and criminal defense, appears to have jumped to the front of the line in positioning itself to garner massive profits if the White House decides to facilitate legal action against China for the loss of life and financial costs imposed on Americans by COVID-19.
Before emerging as the leading firm pursuing damages against China, the world’s second largest economy, the Berman Law Group’s internet footprint was dominated by attention-grabbing videos and Facebook posts. The firm’s VP of Marketing, Evan Golden — a reality TV personality who once appeared on Ivana Trump’s “Ivana Young Man” Oxygen show — hosts the video podcast “Talk Golden to Me” from his office, and the firm seemed to specialize in personal injury lawsuits and acquiring clients via aggressive, if sometimes crass, marketing campaigns.
The firm’s scrappy approach, however, appears to be paying dividends in gaining access to the White House’s top decision makers and pushing the firm’s considerable financial interest in the long-shot bid to deny China sovereign immunity, a move that may still require congressional approval.
According to the Post, the Berman Law Group partnered with former Trump organization attorney George Sorial in the class-action suit, offering Berman Law Group unprecedented access to the president and a chance to bolster its efforts to push Trump towards a more confrontational approach to China. Such a move could be a dangerous shift in U.S. foreign policy that risks undermining numerous areas of potential collaboration with China, from public health to climate change.
“The Berman Law Group, a law firm that has launched the first major class-action lawsuit against China over the damage done by the virus, has been consulting with several senior Trump advisers in recent weeks on what they consider the most fruitful way to punish China,” the Post noted, adding, “The team is both sharing information they learn about China’s actions in the case and stressing the value of a massive global lawsuit to make China pay for failing to warn other countries about a lethal virus.”
Sorial, according to the Post, is central to Berman’s efforts to influence Trump’s thinking.
“Sorial, the former Trump Organization lawyer who has partnered with the Berman Law Group, has been the point man in communicating with top administration officials that the most effective way to compensate Americans for their losses is a civil suit and that curbing sovereign immunity could ease their path in court,” the Post reported.
Adding to the firm’s apparent ties to Trump, Theodore Berman posted a photo of himself on Facebook with Trump at a location that looks like the president’s Florida home in Mar-a-Lago in 2009.
Berman’s ambitions for influence in government clearly precede the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2018, Berman hired Frank Biden, the brother of former Vice President and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, as a “senior adviser.”
“We are thrilled to have Frank, a proficient strategist who is highly regarded in the business and government sectors, join the Berman team,” said Theodore Berman, co-founder of the Berman Law Group in a 2018 press release. “Our clients will be well served by Frank’s diverse insight and expertise.”
The firm told Gen, a Medium publication, that there has been “no communication” with Frank Biden about the class-action lawsuit.
How a personal injury law firm in Florida somehow found itself advising the White House on its most important foreign policy decisions remains far from clear, although the partnership with Sorial, a Trump confidante, and the firm’s interest in connecting with politically connected individuals, seem to have played a key role in advancing Berman’s long-shot, but potentially extremely lucrative, class action lawsuit.
The potential ramifications for U.S. foreign policy, however, are easier to identify.
“Revoking Chinese sovereign immunity would set a dangerous precedent, affording China or other countries an excuse to suspend America’s own sovereign immunity under the principle of negative reciprocity. It thus could make the United States more vulnerable to lawsuits from people in other countries over the consequences of U.S. government action,” said Rachel Esplin Odell, a research fellow in the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
“Such an unprecedented action would also dramatically escalate U.S.-China confrontation, which will impede the international collaboration needed during the crisis to confront the pandemic, bolster the global economy, and protect supply chains,” said Odell. “It would also reduce the willingness of China to negotiate a phase 2 trade deal with the United States and further threaten the prospects of U.S.-China cooperation to tackle climate change.”