GUEST BLOG / By Bess Levin, The Levin Report Daily Newsletter via Vanity Fair and Conde Nast--One of the most annoying things about Donald Trump is the fact that for basically his entire life, he’s escaped any and all consequences for being what the law defines as a “scumbag piece of shit.” Whether it was allegedly stiffing hundreds of Trump Organization contractors, shadily raising tenants’ rent, or siccing a mob on the Capitol, the guy has somehow avoided repercussions, save for some basically meaningless financial settlements. But that luck may soon be running out and not just for the ex-president but for certain members of his family as well.
On Tuesday, the New York attorney general’s office said that its investigation into the Trump Organization, which was previously a civil inquiry, is now a criminal matter. Obviously, that should be deeply concerning to the Queens-born real estate developer, but even more worrisome, in terms of avoiding staying out of prison, is the news that A.G. Letitia James’s office is reportedly now working with that of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., whose office obtained eight years of Trump’s tax returns earlier this year, a development Trump responded to like a man who knows he’s committed all manner of fraud and is about to get caught. “We have informed the Trump Organization that our investigation into the company is no longer purely civil in nature,” Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, said in a statement on Tuesday. “We are now actively investigating the Trump Organization in a criminal capacity, along with the Manhattan D.A. We have no additional comment at this time.”
As The Washington Post notes: The attorney general’s decision appears to have increased the legal risk that former president Donald Trump faces in New York, where the parallel investigations run by James and Vance had already delved more deeply into Trump’s byzantine finances than any law enforcement authorities ever had. Previously, the danger posed by James’s investigation seemed to be merely financial—the kind of lawsuit Trump had faced from New York attorneys general before over his Trump University and his charity. Those cost him money but didn’t threaten his liberty. Now, however, James could also seek criminal penalties.
Trump and his representatives have repeatedly denied wrongdoing, saying the investigations are baseless and politically motivated.
According to the Post, James’s office informed the Trump Organization’s attorneys of the shift in April, and suggested that “criminality could apply to actions by current and former company executives and employees if the investigation finds wrongdoing.” Eric and Donald Trump Jr. are of course longtime executives of the family business, so obviously they could find themselves in very serious trouble. But it may be Ivanka Trump who has the most to worry about.
Last November, shortly after her father lost the 2020 election, The New York Times reported that both James‘s and Vance Jr.’s offices had expanded their probes of the then-president and his businesses to include suspicious tax write-offs on millions of dollars in consulting fees, some of which, according to a Times investigation, appeared to have been paid to Ivanka. That investigation—which revealed Trump paid little to no income tax in the last two decades—showed that the “very rich” real estate developer had managed to reduce his taxable income by deducting approximately $26 million in fees to “consultants” as business expenses between 2010 and 2018. While the consultants’ identities were not listed on tax records, some of the fees definitely looked like they’d been paid to his favorite child.
As the Times wrote: On a 2017 disclosure [Ivanka Trump] filed when joining the White House as a presidential adviser, she reported receiving payments from a consulting company she co-owned, totaling $747,622, that exactly matched consulting fees claimed as tax deductions by the Trump Organization for hotel projects in Hawaii and Vancouver, British Columbia.
The subpoenas were focused on fees paid to the firm on her disclosures, TTT Consulting LLC, and represented just a portion of the $26 million, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. The name of the firm appears to be a reference to Ms. Trump and other members of her family. Ms. Trump was an executive officer of the Trump companies that made the payments, meaning she appears to have been treated as a consultant while also working for the company. While companies can deduct professional fees, the Internal Revenue Service requires that consulting arrangements be market-based and reasonable, as well as “ordinary and necessary” to running a business.
The examination of fees apparently paid to his older daughter is likely to arouse even more vitriol from the outgoing president. And it raises questions about whether the payments were a tax-deductible way for him to compensate his children, or avoid gift taxes he might incur from transferring wealth to them, something Mr. Trump’s father had done through legally questionable schemes uncovered by the Times in 2018.
Responding to the news on Twitter at the time, Trump’s eldest daughter fumed: “This is harassment pure and simple. This ‘inquiry’ by NYC democrats is 100% motivated by politics, publicity, and rage. They know very well that there’s nothing here and that there was no tax benefit whatsoever. These politicians are simply ruthless…. This fishing expedition is very clearly part of a continued political vendetta.”
Ivanka does not appear to have personally commented on the news of the new criminal probe, though presumably, she’s not thrilled. In a 909-word statement posted to Trump’s blog (“From the Desk of Donald J. Trump”), the former president offered his characteristically unhinged thoughts on the matter, claiming, without a hint of irony, that James ran for office pledging to take out her “enemies” (something Trump would never do!); that the criminal investigation into him is “is something that happens in failed third world countries”; and that “the District Attorney and Attorney General are possessed, at an unprecedented level, with destroying the political fortunes of President Donald J. Trump and the almost 75 million people who voted for him, by far the highest number ever received by a sitting President.”
By now you've likely heard that the fantasy held by millions of seeing Donald Trump live out his last days in prison, where he’ll be reduced to telling guards “they used to call me Mr. President,” and require Don Jr. and Eric to smuggle contraband in on visiting day via their ass cheeks, has gotten one step closer, with the news that the Manhattan district attorney has convened a grand jury to hear evidence against the ex-president.
According to legal experts, this is a major development in Cyrus Vance Jr.’s criminal investigation; as former assistant district attorney Rebecca Roiphe told the Post, it’s unlikely that Vance’s office would have taken such a step without believing it can prove Trump, the Trump Organization, or a Trump Organization executive committed a crime. “The prosecutors are convinced they have a case,” Roiphe said. “That’s at least how I read it.” As former U.S. attorney Preet Bharara told CNN, “It’s significant…they must have come across some evidence as to somebody’s state of mind.
That the misconduct they were investigating does not seem to be the product of negligence or recklessness or mistake but intentional criminality.” And as a result, people surrounding the ex-president are said to be more than a little freaked out, as they probably should be!
According to Politico Playbook, which spoke to members of “Trump world” after the news came out, “There’s definitely a cloud of nerves in the air.” One adviser told the outlet that while Trump is no stranger to legal issues, this situation feels different, in part because prosecutors are pressuring Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, who’s described himself as Trump’s “eyes and ears” at the company, to flip. “I think the Weisselberg involvement and the wild card of that makes the particular situation more real, because there’s no sort of fluff and made-up fictional circumstances around the guy,” an adviser told Politico. “The fact that they’re dealing with a numbers guy who just has plain details makes people more nervous. This is not a Michael Cohen situation.”
According to Politico legal affairs contributor Josh Gerstein, the grand jury “is expected to go beyond assembling records by hearing live testimony from various witnesses—which will give prosecutors an opportunity to present a narrative that could persuade jurors to return an indictment in the coming months. Coupled with [New York] Attorney General Letitia James’s recent decision to team up with Vance and Vance’s hiring of veteran mafia prosecutor Mark Pomerantz, the move to a new grand jury suggests a steady progression towards criminal charges against some person or company in the Trump orbit.”
Of course, despite the fact that Trump may very well be privately shitting himself over the news, his public response was a typical meltdown and rehashing of things he’s said in the past—namely, that all of this is a “witch hunt” and that he’s a saint beloved the world over. In a statement, he wrote, or more likely dictated to some poor scribe: “This is a continuation of the greatest Witch Hunt in American history. It began the day I came down the escalator in Trump Tower, and it’s never stopped…. This is purely political, and an affront to the almost 75 million voters who supported me in the Presidential Election, and it’s being driven by highly partisan Democrat prosecutors. New York City and State are suffering the highest crime rates in their history, and instead of going after murderers, drug dealers, human traffickers, and others, they come after Donald Trump. Interesting that today a poll came out indicating I’m far in the lead for the Republican Presidential Primary and the General Election in 2024.”
As for Trump’s actual political aspirations, he will undoubtedly tease another White House run until the very last second before making an actual announcement, though aides have claimed to Politico that “he’s missing being president terribly,” and supposedly gets angry when people question if he’s serious about running again. He’s also inserted himself in the 2022 midterm elections, despite the fact that his endorsements are actually the kiss of death. Per Politico:
With an eye toward winning back the House and Senate in the 2022 midterm elections, former President Donald Trump has begun crafting a policy agenda outlining a MAGA doctrine for the party. His template is the 1994 “Contract with America,” a legislative agenda released ahead of the midterm elections in the middle of President Bill Clinton’s first term. And, as a cherry on top, he’s teaming up with its main architect—[Newt] Gingrich—to do it.
In recent weeks, Trump sat down with the former House speaker as well as his former chief of staff Mark Meadows and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) at his private Mar-a-Lago club to begin crafting the document, according to a source familiar with the meeting. The group is still just beginning to hammer out the details of what a Trumpified Contract might look like. But it is likely to take an “America-First” policy approach on everything from trade to immigration. The source described it as “a policy priority for 2022 and beyond.”
Presumably, anyone looking for Trump’s endorsement would have to sign the Trump Contract in blood, though according to an analysis by Bloomberg, candidates hoping to actually win a seat might want to avoid the ex-president’s stamp of approval. While his endorsement helped Republicans win primaries in 2020, 40 of his 183 endorsed candidates lost, and in 2018, the GOP could have picked up at least 11 more House seats and four in the Senate had Trump stayed on the sidelines.