NEW YORK — Trailing in the polls a day before the election, President Donald Trump faces the very real prospect of swapping the White House for the Big House.
He’s directly implicated in campaign finance crimes and is under investigation by both Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance and New York State Attorney General Letitia James for alleged fraud in his business dealings. On top of that, he faces civil defamation lawsuits from women accusing him of sexual assault.
Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, knows the stakes better than just about anyone in the president’s inner circle.
“I believe there are more significant charges that will be brought by a multitude of agencies, both federal and state,” Cohen told the Daily News of Trump’s potential criminal liability if he loses the election. “Tax evasion, misrepresentation to a bank, bank fraud, wire fraud, insurance fraud … to name just a few.”
Cohen, who’s serving a three-year prison sentence in home confinement for crimes committed on Trump’s behalf, has been cooperating in Vance’s investigation, according to sources.
For the past four years, Trump’s special status as president has protected him from federal indictment and helped delay a reckoning in many cases, as the Justice Department has longstanding policies against charging sitting commanders-in-chief.
If Trump loses the Nov. 3 contest, the dynamics shift, though.
“There’s a legal change and a sort of political change. Legally, he no longer has whatever immunities he had when he was president. Politically, I think things shift — one would not bring a criminal prosecution against a sitting president unless it was the most compelling case imaginable,” said Bruce Green, a Fordham Law professor and former assistant U.S. attorney at the Southern District of New York.
Trump’s legal peril includes hush money payments made to women in the lead-up to the 2016 election. Cohen pleaded guilty to arranging the payouts to porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal to prevent them from going public with stories of their alleged affairs with Trump. The $130,000 payment to Daniels far exceeded the $2,700 limit on contributions to a candidate. A $150,000 payment to McDougal flouted a ban on corporations contributing to a candidate.
Manhattan federal prosecutors definitively linked Trump to the scheme in 2018, writing that Cohen “acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1.”
Individual-1, Cohen confirmed under oath, is Trump.
Prosecutors wrote in July 2018 that they had “effectively concluded” their investigation into the campaign finance scheme — but that doesn’t mean they can’t revisit the decision.
“I think that implies that based on what they then had, the investigation was closed. They weren’t gathering more evidence, they weren’t building a case against anybody else,” said Green. “But if something happens after the election, the office can reopen the investigation.”
Vance launched his own investigation of how the Trump Organization accounted for the hush money payments in 2018.
The probe, which has faced delays due to Trump’s legal challenges of Vance’s demand for his tax returns, expanded to include investigations of possible insurance, bank and tax fraud. Trump’s efforts to block Vance’s subpoena resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling that the president is subject to criminal investigation just like any other citizen. But Trump has successfully stalled Vance’s demand for eight years of his taxes through new arguments that could return the case to the top court.
James’ civil investigation of Trump’s business dealings could add to his money woes. She’s examining whether Trump inflated the value of his properties to obtain loans and tax benefits. Trump’s son, Eric Trump, was deposed on Oct. 5 in the case.
Harvard University constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe said the James and Vance investigations should be of “greatest concern” to Trump. The scholar, who advised top House Democrats during Trump’s impeachment, said it’s “almost inevitable” that the president will be criminally charged should he lose the election.
“The investigations of greatest concern would focus on Trump’s seemingly criminal financial manipulations — bank and insurance fraud in knowingly falsifying his income, his wealth and the value of various assets,” Tribe said.
Legal observers have speculated Trump could still face obstruction of justice charges in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. He could also face bribery charges stemming from the Ukraine-focused impeachment inquiry, according to experts. Both present relatively little legal risk when compared to other active investigations, however.
Separate defamation lawsuits brought by women who accused Trump of sexual assault — advice columnist E. Jean Carroll and former “Apprentice” contestant Summer Zervos — also present the possibility of large money judgments against Trump. Both women claim Trump smeared their names by calling them liars after they went public with accounts of his alleged assaults.
All the president’s cronies were not afforded the same legal protections as the boss and have amassed an astonishing record of convictions and ongoing investigations. At least 18 people among Trump’s associates have been arrested or gone to jail since the president took office.
“The degree to which postpresidential prosecution is discussed during the current election tells us that this has been a presidency so mired in apparent criminality, from the top on down, that just about everyone knows a major incentive for Trump to stay in office as long as he can is to exploit the Justice Department’s policy against indicting a sitting president,” Tribe said.
Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was sentenced in 2019 to 47 months in prison for a long list of tax and bank fraud charges, much of which stemmed from his lobbying work for pro-Russian political forces in Ukraine. He’s completing his sentence on home confinement due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Steve Bannon, the CEO of Trump’s 2016 campaign and ex-White House strategist, is accused of fleecing donors to a charity that sought to privately fund a border wall with Mexico. Bannon, once considered Trump’s Svengali, was arrested aboard a yacht off the coast of Connecticut owned by an exiled Chinese billionaire. He has pleaded not guilty to skimming more than $1 million that donors thought would go towards Trump’s signature border wall proposal.
Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has been locked in a head-spinning effort to clear his name — after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI and agreeing to cooperate in Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Flynn moved to withdraw his guilty plea in January, with the support of the Justice Department. A federal judge has put that process on hold as he scrutinizes the Justice Department’s reasons for its change of heart.
Trump’s current personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, still faces legal risk in connection with a case against four men charged with a complex web of campaign finances schemes. The quartet’s efforts to become major players in Trump’s orbit at times overlapped with a White House effort to dig up dirt on Joe Biden in Ukraine, evidence shows.
Giuliani has denied wrongdoing, but prosecutors have charged two men, Lev Parnas and David Correia, with screwing over investors in a proposed insurance company called “Fraud Guarantee.” Giuliani — who is reportedly under investigation in connection with the case — was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by Fraud Guarantee for legal and business advice, according to an October 2019 article by the New York Times. Giuliani has denied wrongdoing.
Roger Stone, the flamboyant Trump associate convicted of lying about his contacts with WikiLeaks and intimidating a witness, had his sentence commuted by the president in July just as he was about to begin serving a 40-month stint. The move was widely seen as an obvious reward for Stone, who had kept his mouth shut despite apparently holding incriminating information on Trump.
“That nearly a dozen of Trump’s close associates have been criminally charged over the course of his first term, and that so many have either pled guilty or been found guilty, says that his boast of choosing ‘only the best’ close associates was a shamefully empty one and that his claim that he would ‘drain the swamp’ was laughably false,” Tribe said.
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