The Memo: Trump faces legal and political peril
Former President Trump’s attempts to remain politically powerful and position himself as a viable 2024 candidate could hit a big hurdle.
Prosecutors in New York look to be on the brink of leveling criminal charges against the Trump Organization, according to recent reports from The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Much remains unclear — and it is still technically possible that no charges will be brought, even though Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. (D) empaneled a new grand jury in May. But if charges are leveled, they will deal a heavy blow to the former president regardless of whether he is himself accused.
Any such actions would place him under a whole new cloud even if, as expected, he protests his innocence and accuses prosecutors of being politically motivated.
It would also give some cover to Republicans who wish to distance themselves from the former president, including those who are mulling a 2024 White House bid.
“I think it would give some form of permission for those folks who are clearly wanting to campaign but who can’t publicly campaign — the people who are going to Iowa and stumping for other people. They could take another step further,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.
Heye also outlined another danger for Trump if criminal charges were to be brought.
“Given Trump’s proclivities, would a judge potentially put a gag order on him? In which case, that would obviously have an effect,” he said.
Trump remains banned from Twitter and Facebook in the wake of his incitement of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol — an offense for which he became the only president in history to be impeached twice.
The restrictions from social media have had the effect of edging Trump a little further from the center of the political stage, even though he has sought to ameliorate their effects by issuing emailed statements from his office.
In one such statement released late Monday afternoon, Trump branded the New York prosecutors “a disgrace to our Nation!”
The former president also enjoyed the adulation of a huge crowd in Ohio at the weekend, and he appears to be quickening the pace of such events. Another rally is set for Sarasota, Fla., on Saturday.
But the apparent culmination of criminal probes in New York involving not only Vance but New York state Attorney General Letitia James (D) could put Trump under a new burden of pressure.
Reporting so far indicates that prosecutors are interested in at least two areas. One is whether the Trump Organization engaged in fraud by inflating the value of its assets when it suited the company to do so — as collateral to get loans, for example — while then deflating those same values to lighten its tax burden. The other is whether benefits to employees were appropriately taxed.
A central figure in the matter is Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, whose association with the family goes back to the 1970s, when he worked for the former president’s late father, Fred Trump.
There has been much speculation about whether Weisselberg might be “flipped” to testify against the company or against Trump himself. At this point, that prospect seems to have receded.
A Washington Post report on Sunday evening indicated that lawyers for Trump had been given a deadline of Monday afternoon to make their case as to why the Trump Organization shouldn’t be criminally indicted.
The Times previously reported that Trump attorneys had met with senior prosecutors from Vance’s office on Thursday.
The idea of charging an entity rather than a person with criminal wrongdoing can seem peculiar to the legal layperson. However, experts emphasize that it does not connote any lesser seriousness.
Harry Litman, a former U.S. attorney and former deputy assistant attorney general, said he thinks it is possible the Trump Organization could be prosecuted under New York laws modeled after federal RICO statutes — laws that were originally created to aid the fight against organized crime.
“The notion would be, with Mafia families, that you took a regular company and completely took it over and ran it as a criminal enterprise. So the idea is that a normal company has been commandeered for criminal ends, so it is just a shell for crime.”
Litman notes that, if he is proven right about the use of so-called little RICO laws, that would expose high-ranking individuals such as Weisselberg or Trump to criminal penalty.
The mere fact of charges being pressed could greatly complicate the Trump Organization’s existing loans, or its search for new credit. Given that Trump has always been something of an evangelist for the use of leverage — he in the past referred to himself as “the king of debt” — such consequences could be “ruinous” for his company, Litman said.
There are, of course, vital caveats.
Trump continues to brand the investigation a “witch hunt.” His enemies have taken glee in his facing apparent legal peril before, only for him to emerge basically scot-free. And his hold on a swath of the GOP grassroots is so strong that almost nothing, including an indictment against him or his company, is likely to loosen it.
But none of that changes that there are troubles likely ahead for the ex-president, and they come from prosecutors who are deadly serious.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.