Finally, there are criminal charges.
Five years after a criminal investigation began, the Manhattan District Attorney has charged former President Donald Trump with 34 counts of falsifying business records while making improper payments during the 2016 presidential election. The charges mainly relate to the now-familiar effort to silence two women who claim they had sex with Trump before he ran, while he was married to his current wife Melania.
But Trump faces the more lenient charges the Manhattan DA considered in its long-running investigation. What is missing are allegations of financial crimes that prosecutors believe Trump committed, including business fraud, tax evasion, insurance fraud and bank fraud. Though he faces a host of legal issues, some of which are likely more perilous than the secret money charges, Trump may never be brought to account for alleged business crimes that prosecutors say are part of integral part of its business model for years.
The secret money charges are serious enough and represent the first time a current or former president has faced criminal allegations. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said the winnings were crimes because Trump counted the money as a business expense, which he did not. There are 34 charges because some of the payments went through former Trump attorney Michael Cohen in installments, and each transaction is a unique criminal charge.
Earnings was first revealed in 2018, with prosecutors ever since weighing what to do about it. Later that year, Cohen, the lawyer, pleaded guilty to federal campaign finance violations related to payments, as part of a broader settlement with the Department of Justice. Court documents referred to then-president Trump as “Individual 1,” or the person authorizing the payment, through Cohen. So if Cohen was guilty, logic suggests that Trump must also be guilty.
The dog that doesn’t bark, however, is a pile of evidence that Trump committed financial crimes not mentioned in the Manhattan prosecutor’s indictment. That office could bring additional charges against Trump, but that seems unlikely given the length of the investigation. There is also no indication that federal prosecutors are looking into Trump’s financial irregularities, despite public evidence of possible tax fraud, bank fraud and other illegalities. Trump has long said he abides by all laws and called for lawsuits against him and his politically motivated “witch hunt” business practices.
Trump is involved in numerous trials and judicial inquiries, and a few of them have begun to puncture the Teflon exterior that Trump has long been known for. Last August, Allen Weisselberg, chief financial officer of Trump’s real estate company, pleaded guilty to 15 financial crimes including tax evasion, which earned him a 5 month prison sentence. In December, a jury found the Trump Organization guilty of 17 related counts that exposed the company’s practice of provide Weisselberg and other employees with valuable benefits that should have been declared and taxed as income, but were not.
Trump himself has always dodged the bullet, and he might do it again in the case of silence. Prosecutors have a high legal bar to meet to prove the silent payment was a serious crime. While Cohen pleaded guilty to a felony for his involvement in the payment, that was at the federal level. Bragg, the Manhattan prosecutor, must indict Trump under New York law, which is trickier.
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Bragg also implicitly decided not to pursue various financial charges against Trump. Prosecutor Mark Pomerantz, who worked on the DA’s Trump case from 2020 to 2022, writes in the new book “The People Against Donald Trump“that “we had evidence that Trump had grown the business and increased his wealth, reputation and power, through a pattern of criminal activity… There were so many areas to examine because neither Trump nor the organization Trump didn’t seem to care about walking legal lines.
A recurring theme emerged as Manhattan prosecutors reviewed thousands of pages of Trump’s financial statements: Trump routinely overvalued properties such as hotels, golf courses and personal residences to enlarge his wealth and secure the most loans. favorably from banks, while undervaluing the same properties for tax. purposes.
Cohen, who testified before Congress about these practices in 2019, told Manhattan prosecutors that each year, Trump would come up with a net worth figure for himself, while Cohen and Weisselberg would then “falsify” asset valuations to match Trump’s figure. These weren’t minor rounding issues. As an example, Pomerantz says the DA’s office estimated that Trump overstated the value of his Mar-a-Lago estate by 1,000% over a seven-year period of records they reviewed. .
This type of activity can involve several types of crimes, including forgery of business documents, bank fraud and tax evasion. Many such charges appear in the civil lawsuit of New York State Attorney Letitia James filed against Trump last year, which is in progress. James is seeking $250 million in restitution from the Trump Organization, and she wants to ban Trump and his three adult children from running a business in New York. Since this is a civil suit, however, there would be no criminal conviction or penalties such as jail time.
In his book, Pomerantz described several difficulties Manhattan prosecutors faced in charging Trump with financial crimes. For one thing, there was no “flesh and blood victim” to build a narrative on because they couldn’t highlight anyone who had lost money or suffered because of anything Trump did. Banks may have suffered and governments may have lost tax revenue, but that doesn’t mean jurors would have sympathized. Trump’s sprawling network of companies, subsidiaries and sub-subsidiaries has also overwhelmed a relatively small staff of prosecutors with mountains of complex documents.
The Justice Department would have been in a better position to look into these possible crimes, with far more resources and fewer jurisdictional hurdles, especially since they got the ball rolling by prosecuting Cohen and establishing basic evidence that they could also have applied to Trump. . Trump-era Attorney General William Barr declined to do so, perhaps to protect his boss. There was also the long-standing Justice Department policy that a sitting president is essentially immune from federal prosecution.
This policy no longer applied when Trump left office in 2021, but the current attorney general, Merrick Garland, has also not opened an investigation into possible financial crimes by Trump, as long as the we know. New York Attorney General sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service last year, pointing to evidence of possible Trump crimes in the evidence gathered in this civil lawsuit. Garland won’t say why the Justice Department remains insensitive to these issues.
On the other hand, the Justice Department is clearly investigating Trump for unauthorized possession of sensitive classified documents after he left office, under Special Counsel Jack Smith, whom Garland appointed at the end of the year. ‘last year. Special advocates have broad authority, and Smith can also consider whether Trump could be charged with abetting rioters during the Jan. 6, 2021 uprising at the U.S. Capitol or other potential offenses. However, there is no indication that Smith is investigating possible financial crimes, such as interviews with witnesses who allegedly know about Trump’s business dealings. Maybe Garland thinks the federal investigation into Trump is broad enough.
Then there is the investigation into whether Trump committed election fraud in Georgia, prosecuted by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis. This case came from a recorded phone call which Trump told Georgia election officials to “find votes” after he was on the verge of losing Georgia in the 2020 presidential election, and it is considered one of the most serious legal threats that Trump faces. Charges could be imminent. Trump may outlast the Manhattan prosecutor, but other prosecutors are lining up right behind.
Rick Newman is a senior columnist for Yahoo finance. Follow him on Twitter at @rickjnewman
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