Court Battles

Trump legal risks mount with New York moves

Former President Trump’s legal woes are mounting with the news that state and local prosecutors in New York are conducting a joint criminal investigation into his company.

It’s unclear exactly what charges the New York attorney general and the Manhattan district attorney are exploring, but the announcement signals an escalation in the offices’ investigations that have at times spilled into public view in recent years. The rare move to publicly announce a criminal probe is also fueling Republican efforts to discredit it.

The news comes three months after Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. (D) obtained Trump’s tax returns, ending a protracted legal battle that twice reached the Supreme Court over a grand jury subpoena.

New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) separately has taken the Trump Organization to court in her own investigation into the company’s assets.

James’s office said on Tuesday that it had informed the Trump Organization that the probe had expanded beyond a civil investigation.

“We are now actively investigating the Trump Organization in a criminal capacity, along with the Manhattan DA. We have no additional comment at this time,” Fabien Levy, a spokesman for the state attorney general, said in a statement.

The immediate implications of the news are unclear, as both offices have been tight-lipped about their investigations, but it raises the stakes for both Trump and the prosecutors.

“This appears to be an absolutely serious investigation. And based on what’s in the newspapers, it seems to be fairly advanced,” said Daniel Horwitz, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney. “It would seem that the district attorney and the attorney general have devoted significant resources to this investigation.”

“Whether it ends in a prosecution of individuals, including the president, it’s impossible to say at this point. The answer to that question is going to turn on whether there is evidence to demonstrate that the president participated in a financial fraud,” Horwitz added.

Horwitz said that if the attorney general’s office had found evidence of criminal wrongdoing, it would make sense that it would turn to the district attorney for more resources, given that the latter is better equipped for criminal investigations and prosecutions.

The immediate political ramifications are more readily apparent. Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing, and his allies say the investigations are more evidence that Democrats are hellbent on using their powers to attack him even after he has left office.

Republicans have pointed to James’s 2018 campaign, in which she vowed to take on Trump as attorney general. Others say it’s part of an effort to stop Trump from launching a 2024 presidential bid.

“It’s clear that the Democrats and their allies want to stop Trump from running for president in 2024,” said GOP strategist Ford O’Connell. “They’re worried that he will win, and they will throw every roadblock in his way to prevent that from happening.”

Trump responded to the investigation on Wednesday, releasing a lengthy statement calling it “corrupt” and politically motivated.

“I have built a great company, employed thousands of people, and all I do is get unfairly attacked and abused by a corrupt political system. It would be so wonderful if the effort used against President Donald J. Trump, who lowered taxes and regulations, rebuilt our military, took care of our Veterans, created Space Force, fixed our border, produced our vaccine in record-setting time (years ahead of what was anticipated), and made our Country great and respected again, and so much more, would be focused on the ever more dangerous sidewalks and streets of New York,” Trump wrote in the statement.

Trump’s statement comes as he prepares to resume his in-person campaign rallies next month and is slated to speak at state party events.

The former president is still the de facto leader of the Republican Party, with a large number of Republican voters and lawmakers aligning with him.

A CNBC poll released in February showed 74 percent of Republicans surveyed saying they would like to see the former president stay active in some way, while 48 percent said they wanted him to remain head of the GOP.

Trump repeatedly lambasted past investigations into his administration, including former special counsel Robert Mueller’s federal probe into Russia’s election meddling. Republican lawmakers and candidates echoed Trump’s talking points on the matter during the 2018 and 2020 elections, calling the investigations politically motivated against Trump and the GOP.

The investigation into the Trump Organization is likely to become another talking point for Trump as he campaigns for other Republicans and mulls a potential 2024 presidential bid.

“It’ll be a big issue that [there] is an establishment that is out to get him no matter what, and they won’t stop until they get him,” said Republican strategist Keith Naughton. “That victim psychology works very well.”

Republican strategists cite Mueller’s probe as a major reason his base is suspicious about coverage of investigations into Trump and those around him. Mueller did not find evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians during the 2016 presidential election.

“The narrative for so long has been [that] the walls are closing in on Trump,” former Trump administration official Alexei Woltornist told The Hill. “The walls haven’t closed in. It was supposed to be Mueller. Then it was supposed to be Russia impeachment.”

But if Trump and his allies talk too much about the investigations into him, it could backfire, say strategists who think the former president would be better served sticking to the issues.

“You have to pivot to what really matters to the voters and about their issues,” Naughton said. “Donald Trump and those who support him can’t run on ‘vote for me because Donald Trump is getting picked on.'”

The political implications of the investigation are likely to weigh heavily when prosecutors decide whether the facts they gathered warrant criminal charges. John Buza, a former Manhattan assistant district attorney, says that when the target of an investigation is a high-profile political figure, prosecutors have to ensure that their case is strong enough not only to overcome reasonable doubt but also to withstand accusations of that political motivations are driving their efforts.

“Cases like these need to be above reproach from a prosecutor standpoint,” Buza said. “And I think it’s absolutely critical that prosecutors really lay out a very clear roadmap of criminality, that has nothing to do with the politics of the Trump presidency, or any of the things that happened while Trump is president. If it raises the suspicions of this being the sort of political hit job that is going to create a situation where the case could get dismissed, or at least found not guilty, I think that that would be catastrophic for a prosecutor.”

“The [district attorney] is not bringing this case if they think that there is any chance of acquittal or dismissal of charges,” he added.

Max Greenwood contributed to this report. 

Tags Donald Trump New York Robert Mueller

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