SPONSORED:

Is Trump headed to another campaign or to a courtroom?

Over the past week, there have been scores of pieces on Donald TrumpDonald TrumpIran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries Pardon-seekers have paid Trump allies tens of thousands to lobby president: NYT MORE possibly running for president in 2024 or the pros and cons of the Biden administration prosecuting him.

Fellow speculators, you're jumping the gun, missing the point.

The real action will in all probability be the investigation and possible indictment of the former president in New York state.

ADVERTISEMENT

And that will impact 2024.

Joe BidenJoe BidenFear of insider attack prompts additional FBI screening of National Guard troops: AP Iran convicts American businessman on spying charge: report DC, state capitals see few issues, heavy security amid protest worries MORE has said he'll leave any questions of criminal charges to his attorney general. Trump may very well try to engineer a personal pardon for himself, his family and a large cast of associates. Most legal experts don't think a president can pardon himself, but that’s relevant only if Biden decides to prosecute.

Knowing Biden, that is very unlikely.

Some Republican such as Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamGraham calls on Schumer to hold vote to dismiss article of impeachment against Trump Impeachment trial tests Trump's grip on Senate GOP An attack on America that's divided Congress — and a nation MORE will say, ‘Hey, it would poison the well of getting things done.’ That's a canard, but the new president will want to look ahead.

Andrew Weissmann, the crack federal prosecutor who was on former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE's team, makes a compelling case for why Trump should be held accountable by the federal government. In a conversation, he acknowledged that may be unlikely: “Then all eyes are on the Manhattan DA.”

On multiple occasions, judges and courts rejected Trump's efforts to thwart Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance's two-year investigation into Trump’s business interests. Trump now is asking the Supreme Court, which voted against him on this once already, to stop Vance from getting his financial and tax documents. Trump’s case is weak, and it's hard to see this Republican-dominated high court saying a former Republican president can't be held accountable by local law enforcement.

ADVERTISEMENT

The New York Attorney General also is probing Trump's business practices, with a focus on his state tax returns. Any action there would be a civil suit.

On the federal level — even if the Biden administration decides not to pursue criminal charges — the Internal Revenue Service would likely go after any past taxes that Trump has avoided. Unlike every president since Richard Nixon, he has refused to release any of his returns to the public.

Biden also could tap a “truth and reconciliation commission” to look into egregious violations of law or procedures.

The Manhattan DA's case started with evidence, provided by Trump’s former attorney, that during the 2016 campaign, Trump paid hush money to women to conceal sexual relations with him. This seems well documented, but it's a campaign finance violation, which is very hard to get a conviction on.

However, in response to Trump's complaints, Vance's office laid out a wide array of financial and tax fraud matters it was also investigating. Both his ex-lawyer and other reports indicate Trump may have inflated assets to secure loans and then deflated them for tax purposes. That might lead to serious fraud charges.

Moreover, The New York Times got access to Trump’s tax returns, which suggest he took illicit deductions, including one for paying his daughter, a company employee, almost three-quarters of a million dollars as a consultant. When the prosecutors get all his records from accountants, they could open up new charges, such as money laundering.

Trump alleges the whole investigation is just a partisan hit job.

To be sure, state cases — especially complicated ones involving tax and valuations fraud — are tougher to prosecute. Vance's office did a fabulous job in thwarting Trump's efforts to sandbag the case. The well-respected office was run by the legendary Robert Morgenthau for 35 years before Vance was elected in 2009. There is some question about the current expertise in prosecuting complicated white-collar crimes.

They have to prove not only fraud but also Trump's direct complicity. Weissmann says that means they probably have to get an insider "to flip." The prospect of avoiding a couple of years in a New York state prison may be an incentive. Trump and his family command little personal loyalty.

If Trump is prosecuted, he will try to parlay the “victim card” to his political advantage. This would add to his phony claim of a “stolen election.” For the record, Biden not only won legitimately; it wasn't close. Biden’s popular vote margin was larger than Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden-Harris team unveils inauguration playlist Can the GOP break its addiction to show biz? The challenge of Biden's first days: staying focused and on message MORE's in 2012 — or any of the last three Republican victories. The Democrat got 306 electoral votes, a number that four years ago Trump said was a “landslide.” As that sinks in, the likelihood that more bad stuff will emerge in Manhattan, his age and physical condition, 2024 is more than reach.

Some guess that Trump's crazy behavior is in essence a plea bargain: Call off the dogs, and I'll be quiet.

Biden has no authority to call off state prosecutors.

ADVERTISEMENT

And why would Vance make a deal with Trump?

Regardless, the odds are not great that 44 months from now Trump will be accepting another presidential nomination.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.