Jennifer Taub, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, knows a white-collar financial criminal when she sees one. A professor at the Western New England University School of Law, she’s the author of Big Dirty Money and has written regularly about Donald Trump’s legal woes for this magazine. The Harvard Law School graduate and podcast host has also done interviews with me, her regular editor.
When news of the 45th president’s indictment by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg startled the nation on the evening of March 30, I knew I had to speak with Taub, especially at an awkward moment when we know that Trump will be arraigned, but the counts against him remain sealed, and we’re left to game out various scenarios.
Here’s my conversation from the night of the 30th. The transcript is edited for brevity and clarity. I reached Taub by phone at her home in Massachusetts, where she was enjoying a Lemon Drop cocktail.
MC: I guess nobody’s surprised, but that said, are you surprised?
JT: I am because just yesterday, I thought, “Three weeks to get some other stuff done.” And so, I was utterly shocked and overjoyed to find out that there had been an indictment.
MC: This may sound obvious, but why are you “overjoyed?”
JT: I think it’s because this is somebody who, his entire adult life, has been criminal adjacent, and finally, the law caught up with him. And as someone who wrote a book called Big Dirty Money, I get very frustrated with how the white, wealthy, and well-connected treat our laws as optional—and gain wealth and power through the commission of fraud and the mass victimization of the public. And he is the poster child for that. To see even a modest amount of comeuppance is a reason for joyful celebration.
MC: The conventional wisdom is that this is a weak case, similar to the one against [former U.S. Senator] John Edwards, who was not convicted. Tell me why you think differently.
JT: Well, I guess I would say two things. I don’t know that election fraud charges will be part of this. I believe that the falsification of business records charges may be similar to the records charges we saw in the successful conviction of the Trump Corporation and the Trump Payroll Corporation just this December. And so, instead of the analogy being to John Edwards, the more apt analogy is to the successful indictment by Bragg just a few months ago.
What kind of financial records falsification would have been involved with Stormy Daniels?
JT: So, the Trump Corporation says, “Here is a legal expense for Michael Cohen.” And if they had just said, “It’s a reimbursement for a cash outlay,” that wouldn’t have been a false record, but they put it down as a “legal expense.” It’s not a legal expense or a real business expense because that was a personal expense of Donald Trump.
MC: So, Trump reimbursed Cohen $130,000 for the Stormy Daniels hush money…
JT: Well, there are two different numbers. There’s also the Karen McDougal case, which might be part of this.
MC: I guess what I was getting to is this: Trump’s got enough money to pay Daniels. Why deduct it as an expense?
JT: And just what do you mean he has enough money?
MC: Enough to want to avoid a false records charge. To extend Caitlin Flanagan’s analogy, it’s like going to get your taillight fixed when you have a dead body in the truck.
JT: But remember the whole Spy magazine thing, what Graydon Carter did. [In Spy, the deceased 1980s magazine, the editors sent small checks of less than $1, in ever smaller amounts, to rich people to see if they would cash them. Trump led the pack, cashing even 16-cent checks.] That’s how he’s built. It doesn’t surprise me that he wouldn’t try to squeeze every tax deduction. On stage with Hillary Clinton, he said that makes him “smart.”
MC: If you had a body in the trunk, you’d be careful.
JT: You don’t get the taillight fixed, but you are also not Donald Trump.
MC: True. So, what might the charges be?
JT: I think it’s business records falsification. I think it’s tax evasion, and I think it’s conspiracy. And I think it’s a scheme to defraud. The successful jury trial is a blueprint—so the same charges we saw that were successfully brought against Trump Organization. This is going to look a lot like that.
MC: It sounds like the evidence is in the documents, or do you think it also depends on witness testimony and [former Trump attorney and convicted felon] Michael Cohen’s credibility?
JT: It’s everything. By the way, so that you know, I’m now chewing on some of the Jelly Bellys [added to the cocktail]. Yeah. My husband is calling them “jaily” beans instead of jelly beans. Does Michael Cohen’s credibility matter? I think Cohen’s a great witness. When you meet him, you realize he’s a very sincere person, and he’s putting his cards—at least with respect to this—on the table. But it doesn’t matter because they will have people like [Trump’s 2016 campaign manager] Kellyanne Conway as potential witnesses, maybe [former Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer] Allen Weisselberg, too.
MC: We think Weisselberg might have flipped, right? He wouldn’t go after Trump, the individual, just the Trump Organization in his previous testimony.
JT: This is another wildcard. For the first time, the tables are turned. Remember when Trump was in office? If there was a scandal everyday, there was another one the next day to push the first out of the news. The tables are turned. Bragg just pulled a fast one. Boom! We’re going to get [Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney] Fani Willis. And then we’re gonna get maybe some [Department of Justice Special Counsel] Jack Smith stuff.
MC: Do the other prosecutors wait?
JT: Wait for what? This is not the DMV.
MC: Sort out who puts him on trial first.
JT: We know the story of Merrick Garland. Even though I had a sweet spot for him when he did the raid on Mar-a-Lago, I soured on him again when he was not acting quickly. And let me just say Garland should be hanging his head in shame because if he had appointed a special counsel in his first year, we would have had indictments on the biggest crime against the American people, orchestrating the attempted coup. So good for Bragg, but shame on the Department of Justice.
MC: You’ve studied how white-collar criminal defense lawyers get their clients out of financial jams. What’s the best defense for Trump?
JT: This is different, though. Because when it’s a giant corporation, and there’s a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violation like bribing a foreign official, that’s something that the lawyers can say, “Well, you know, it’s this division in Mexico. And this is what went down, and we’re doing an independent study, and we’re firing all the bad apples, and we’re going to put in compliance and blah, blah, blah.” No, that’s not the situation. This is Trump’s eponymous corporation; the guy called all the shots. Trump can hire as many attorneys as he wants. But the blows are coming from everywhere like he’s in the ring. And he’s up against many better boxers.
MC: The drug dealer you see on TV or in real life has more protection between him and the actual crime than Trump.
JT: He learned from Roy Cohn, “Don’t take notes.” The guy doesn’t put things in writing. Remember, there’s also a civil trial coming up in three weeks.
MC: The civil trial for…
JT: E. Jean Carroll?
MC: I know, that seems ridiculous to talk about this before the indictment, but let’s talk endgame. Is there any kind of deal that forestalls verdicts? Is there something Trump could agree to that that Bragg could live with?
JT: It’s not clear to me which trial will happen first. If you think about the 2000 election, there were state cases and there were federal cases. All that fades from view, and all we remember is that the Supreme Court ultimately said, “Stop counting.” We will have a lot of cases.
I’m down just to the jelly beans. And now they’re finally kind of melting into the glass. It’s okay? It’s my last day of teaching when Donald’s been indicted, right?
MC: If this is not the time to uncork the Jelly Bellys, when is it?