When it comes to the ongoing criminal investigations of Donald Trump in New York and Georgia, an understandably impatient public just wants the bottom line. Are the walls finally closing in on him, or are these probes just fizzling out? Put more prosaically: Does Donald Trump have a perp walk and a prison cell in his future?
Since Trump’s presidency began, each revelation of his corruption led many of us to say things like “the walls are closing in.” Such proclamations were hopeful but also based on hardheaded observation. We had seen so much rot from Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election through both impeachment trials in the Senate. Surely something would stick. But these statements were palliatives, not prophecies. When it comes to Trump, we pundits are no better at foreseeing the future than is a Magic 8 Ball replying, “SIGNS POINT TO YES” in response to a whispering child’s repeated entreaties.
Instead of guessing, then, let’s look and come to reasonable conclusions about the known criminal investigations at the state and local levels as well as the potential ones that the U.S. Department of Justice could be or should be pursuing.
There’s the criminal matter that Cy Vance Jr., the outgoing Manhattan district attorney, is pursuing. Recall that in late June, after an investigation of more than two years, the grand jury that Vance convened indicted the Trump Corporation and one of its affiliates for an alleged tax fraud scheme that began in 2005. It involved off-the-books payments to executives that deprived city, state, and federal tax authorities of more than $1 million.
The alleged bagman and the big beneficiary was chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, who was charged with criminal tax fraud, grand larceny, falsifying business records, and scheming to defraud the government. Though he is not a certified public accountant, Weisselberg was Donald and his father Fred’s longtime right-hand numbers man, connected with the notorious family businesses for half a century. Dare I say that he is the human equivalent of the strip mall accounting firm for the late swindler Bernie Madoff? Madoff’s auditor from that firm, David Friehling, pleaded guilty in 2009, but he cooperated with the feds, avoiding prison.
Will Weisselberg sing like Friehling? Maybe not, but others might, including the unindicted coconspirator named in the indictment or others who Weisselberg’s attorney Bryan Skarlatos said would soon be charged in this case. Any of them should consider telling the truth in exchange for some level of immunity. And there may be solid evidence from those not thought to be caught up in the crime, such as Trump’s long-term personal assistant, Rhona Graff, who could reveal her boss’s thinking.
Given that Trump was careful to avoid putting his thoughts in writing, how will the “special” grand jury tasked with deciding whether to indict him be convinced that he intended or conspired to break the law? Such proof will take some doing on Vance’s part.
That said, this under-the-table tax fraud scheme is just an amuse-bouche, according to those who have perused the full menu, like former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen (who called June’s indictment the “tip of the iceberg”). The far more satisfying entrée would be proof that Trump engaged in bank and tax fraud involving the false valuation of his organization’s various real estate holdings. These are also being actively investigated by Letitia James, the New York attorney general, jointly with Vance. These schemes involved Trump pumping up the prices on paper when that would suit him and deflating the values when that was to his advantage, such as paying lower taxes on properties that had been fraudulently devalued. Cohen described this in detail under oath before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in February 2019.
Vance is gaining ground here. A week ago, in a court filing, the district attorney revealed that he had lined up two cooperating witnesses and millions of records from inside the Trump Organization and from various accounting firms, banks, real estate firms, and law firms that did business with it. Of particular note are documents from Charles Martabano. He represented Trump in connection with Seven Springs, a Westchester property owned by Trump that Cohen cited as one of the assets that the Trump Organization lowballed for tax purposes. Also eye-popping is Vance having evidence from the FBI and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, the Treasury Department bureau known as “FinCEN,” which monitors suspicious financial transactions. In addition, he has records from Keith Davidson, who helped arrange hush money payments to help prevent women from speaking out during the election about their affairs with Trump. Attorney General James is also progressing nicely. In early September, a judge ordered the Trump Organization to comply with her subpoenas and report back by no later than October 15 on its efforts. Failure to comply will trigger the appointment by the Trump Organization of a third party (approved by James) to oversee the production of the requested materials.
Although all of this plays out in New York, there is also evidence against Trump mounting in Fulton County, Georgia, where the district attorney is investigating possible Trump interference in the 2020 presidential election vote count—all that pressure the president applied on officials to “find” thousands of more votes. (The Brookings Institution has just published a report that provides a detailed examination of the potential state criminal charges in that matter.)
And what about federal criminal charges? As I have covered before, I am losing confidence that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland will act on the precise blueprint for obstruction of justice charges against Trump as laid out in the Mueller Report. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is a conflict of interest that requires Garland to appoint a special counsel or special counsels for the several criminal inquiries: How can the Department of Justice defend Donald Trump in the defamation case brought by E. Jean Carroll (because of his status as a sitting president when it was launched) and also prosecute him?
As I wonder what is happening inside the DOJ, I am staring at my calendar. It’s been almost five years since Trump attorney Cohen made the $130,000 hush money payment to Stormy Daniels. Buying her silence was equivalent to a campaign contribution, yet the limit on individual donations directly to a campaign is $2,700. In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to making unlawful campaign contributions based on payments he said he made at Trump’s direction. Trump is named as “Individual-1” in the charging documents. The statute of limitations on most federal crimes is five years from commission, but under some circumstances that clock may start ticking later, when the crime was discovered. To be safe, a prosecutor would bring a solid case sooner rather than later.
So when will we know whether justice is coming for Trump, or will he get away with all of it? I can only shake my Magic 8 Ball: “REPLY HAZY, TRY AGAIN.”