The Memo: Dangers intensify for Trump as Vance brings charges
The legal and political dangers facing former President Trump became a lot more real Thursday, when his closest lieutenant in running his businesses, Allen Weisselberg, gave himself up to prosecutors at dawn.
Weisselberg, along with the Trump Organization, was formally charged in court a few hours later. He was brought into court handcuffed.
The 15-count indictment alleges that Weisselberg committed grand larceny and tax fraud, and that the Trump Organization was complicit in many of those offenses.
The core of the issue is whether perks for Weisselberg and other Trump employees were hidden in order to evade tax.
The contours of the gravest dangers facing Trump, as well as a silver lining or two that should caution his enemies against premature triumphalism, can already be seen.
The biggest worry for Trump, without question, is the possibility that Weisselberg will flip and assist prosecutors against his boss.
Weisselberg, 73, has served the Trump family for close to half a century, having worked for the former president’s late father, Fred Trump. Many Trump associates, from loyalists like Corey Lewandowski to friends-turned-foes like Michael Cohen, have attested to Weisselberg’s granular knowledge of the business.
Weisselberg has resisted all overtures to turn so far — despite Vance’s team putting serious pressure on him to do so.
But that could yet change, especially if he faces the possibility of prison time — or if pressure is turned to other family members. The obvious comparison is with Cohen, who was Trump’s loyal enforcer for years but turned 180-degrees against the former president in the hope of reducing his own prison sentence.
So far, Trump is making every effort to ensure Weisselberg stays on-side.
The chief financial officer has been spotted at Trump Tower on recent days when Trump was also known to be working from the building.
On Thursday morning, a spokesperson for the Trump Organization praised Weisselberg in a statement to The Hill. The spokesperson lauded Weisselberg as a devoted family man who was being used “as a pawn in a scorched earth attempt to harm the former President.”
Weisselberg pleaded not guilty today, as did representatives of the Trump Organization. But the mere fact of charges being pressed could have a detrimental impact on Trump’s business.
Specifically, lenders could become less willing to extend credit to a business that is facing criminal charges — or could demand more onerous terms for doing so.
There is also the reputational damage to consider. Trump’s ways of making money have shifted over the years, encompassing more branding and licensing of his name in addition to the real-estate deals that first catapulted him to national prominence.
The Trump brand had already suffered major damage from the many controversies of his presidency — the worst of all coming with his incitement of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol and subsequent impeachment. Criminal charges against his business exacerbate that damage.
Then there is the political impact to consider.
Even within Republican circles, criminal charges touching the president’s business are yet another reminder of the chaos and controversy he will always bring in his wake.
There are plenty of Republicans who would like to find a way to keep the former president’s MAGA base energized without having the Trump name on the ballot. These latest developments will help make their case.
Given the sea of troubles pressing in on the former president, why should his opponents not rejoice?
Firstly, no charges are expected, at least in the next few days, against Trump himself.
That’s significant. If it remains the case, the damage to him, though real, would not be catastrophic.
This, after all, is a former president who paid $25 million to settle fraud claims over Trump University and was later ordered to pay $2 million for misusing charity funds.
Given those precursors — and the fact that not even the insurrection has capsized him as the primary figure of influence within the GOP — it is tough to see charges against his business and his accountant as back-breaking final straws.
The charges also put Trump center-stage once again.
For all his hyperbolic complaints about the media, Trump has for much of his adult life cared more about getting publicity in itself, whether it’s good or bad.
This new return to the top of the headlines comes at a time when his bans from social media had threatened to marginalize him.
In addition, Trump now has a fresh opportunity to paint himself as the victim of nefarious enemies.
Aside from his standard soundbite that any and all investigations into him amount to a “witch hunt,” the former president told Sean Hannity of Fox News on Wednesday evening that the New York prosecutors were members of the “radical left” who had to be fought off.
Those claims have limited traction with the public at large, but the Trump base eats them up.
Finally, Trump does appear to have at least one legitimate argument on his side.
Experts in corporate law tend to agree with his view that it is rare for such a big case as this to be mounted purely regarding an alleged failure to have fringe benefits be properly taxed.
Of course, more serious charges leveled at a later stage would detonate this argument. But for now, Trump has the makings of a legitimate point here.
“In our view, this case was brought because the companies’ name is Trump,” lawyers for the Trump Organization declared in a statement Thursday.
Make no mistake, these developments are bad news for the president.
But he has wriggled out of all kinds of perils before — legal, political and financial.
His Houdini-like ability to do it again should not be discounted.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage