New York: The People v. Donald J. Trump

The defendant looked uncomfortable as he stood to testify in the shabby courtroom. Dressed in a dark suit and somber tie, he seemed aged, dimmed, his posture noticeably stooped. The past year had been a massive comedown for the 76-year-old former world leader. For decades, the bombastic onetime showman had danced his way past scores of lawsuits and blustered through a sprawl of scandals. Then he left office and was indicted for tax fraud. As a packed courtroom looked on, he read from a curled sheaf of papers. It seemed as though the once inconceivable was on the verge of coming to pass: The country’s former leader would be convicted and sent to a concrete cell.

The date was October 19, 2012. The man was Silvio Berlusconi, the longtime prime minister of Italy.

Here in the United States, we have never yet witnessed such an event. No commander-in-chief has been charged with a criminal offense, let alone faced prison time. But if Donald Trump loses the election in November, he will forfeit not only a sitting president’s presumptive immunity from prosecution but also the levers of power he has aggressively co-opted for his own protection. Considering the number of crimes he has committed, the time span over which he has committed them, and the range of jurisdictions in which his crimes have taken place, his potential legal exposure is breathtaking. More than a dozen investigations are already under way against him and his associates. Even if only one or two of them result in criminal charges, the proceedings that follow will make the O. J. Simpson trial look like an afternoon in traffic court.

It may seem unlikely that Trump will ever wind up in a criminal court. His entire life, after all, is one long testament to the power of getting away with things, a master class in criminality without consequences, even before he added presidentiality and all its privileges to his arsenal of defenses. As he himself once said, “When you’re a star, they let you do it.” But for all his advantages and all his enablers, including loyalists in the Justice Department and the federal judiciary, Trump now faces a level of legal risk unlike anything in his notoriously checkered past — and well beyond anything faced by any previous president leaving office. To assess the odds that he will end up on trial, and how the proceedings would unfold, I spoke with some of the country’s top prosecutors, defense attorneys, and legal scholars. For the past four years, they have been weighing the case against Trump: the evidence already gathered, the witnesses prepared to testify, the political and constitutional issues involved in prosecuting an ex-president. Once he leaves office, they agree, there is good reason to think Trump will face criminal charges. “It’s going to head toward prosecution, and the litigation is going to be fierce,” says Bennett Gershman, a professor of constitutional law at Pace Law School who served for a decade as a New York State prosecutor.

It may seem unlikely that Trump will ever wind up in a criminal court. His entire life, after all, is one long testament to the power of getting away with things, a master class in criminality without consequences, even before he added presidentiality and all its privileges to his arsenal of defenses. As he himself once said, “When you’re a star, they let you do it.” But for all his advantages and all his enablers, including loyalists in the Justice Department and the federal judiciary, Trump now faces a level of legal risk unlike anything in his notoriously checkered past — and well beyond anything faced by any previous president leaving office. To assess the odds that he will end up on trial, and how the proceedings would unfold, I spoke with some of the country’s top prosecutors, defense attorneys, and legal scholars. For the past four years, they have been weighing the case against Trump: the evidence already gathered, the witnesses prepared to testify, the political and constitutional issues involved in prosecuting an ex-president. Once he leaves office, they agree, there is good reason to think Trump will face criminal charges. “It’s going to head toward prosecution, and the litigation is going to be fierce,” says Bennett Gershman, a professor of constitutional law at Pace Law School who served for a decade as a New York State prosecutor.

But federal charges aren’t the likeliest way that The People v. Donald J. Trump will play out. State laws aren’t subject to presidential pardons, and they cover a host of crimes beyond those committed in the White House. When it comes to charging a former president, state attorneys general and county prosecutors can go places a U.S. Attorney can’t.

According to legal experts, the man most likely to drag Trump into court is the district attorney for Manhattan, Cyrus Vance  Jr. It’s a surprising scenario, given Vance’s well-deserved reputation as someone who has gone easy on the rich and famous. After taking office in 2010, he sought to reduce Jeffrey Epstein’s status as a sex offender, dropped an investigation into whether Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump  Jr. had committed fraud in the marketing of the Trump Soho, and initially decided not to prosecute Harvey Weinstein despite solid evidence of his sex crimes. “He has a reputation for being particularly cautious when it comes to going after rich people, because he knows that those are the ones who can afford the really formidable law firms,” says Victoria Bassetti, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who served on the team of lawyers that oversaw the Senate impeachment trial of Bill Clinton. “And like most prosecutors, Vance is exceptionally protective of his win-loss rate.”

But it was Vance who stepped up when the federal case against Trump faltered. “He’s a politician,” observes Martin Sheil, a former IRS criminal investigator. “He’s got his finger up. He knows which way the wind’s blowing, and he knows the wind in New York is blowing against Trump. It’s in his political interest to join that bandwagon.”

Last year, after U.S. Attorneys in the Southern District dropped their investigation into the hush money that Trump had paid Stormy Daniels, Vance took up the case. Suspecting that l’affaire Stormy might prove to be part of a larger pattern of shady dealings, his office started digging into Trump’s finances. What Vance is investigating, according to court filings, is evidence of “extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization,” potentially involving bank fraud, tax fraud, and insurance fraud. The New York Times has detailed how Trump and his family have long falsified records to avoid taxes, and during testimony before Congress in 2019, Trump’s longtime fixer Michael Cohen stated that Trump had inflated the value of his assets to obtain a bank loan.

Crucially, all of these alleged crimes occurred before Trump took office. That means no claims of executive privilege would apply to any charges Vance might bring, and no presidential pardon could make them go away. A whole slew of potential objections and delays would be ruled out right off the bat. What’s more, the alleged offenses took place less than six years ago, within the statute of limitation for fraud in New York. Vance, in other words, is free to go after Trump not as a crooked president but as a common crook who happened to get elected president. And the fact that he has been pursuing these cases while Trump is president is a sign that he won’t be intimidated by the stature of the office after Trump leaves it.

In writing up an indictment against Trump, Vance’s team could try to string together a laundry list of offenses in hopes of presenting an overwhelming wall of guilt. But that approach, experts warn, can become confusing. “A two- or three-count indictment is easier to explain to a jury,” says Ilene Jaroslaw, a former assistant U.S. Attorney. “If they think the person had criminal intent, it doesn’t matter if it’s two counts or 20 counts, in most cases, because the sentence will be the same.”

There are two main charges that Vance is likely to pursue. The first is falsifying business records (N.Y. Penal Law § 175.10). During Cohen’s trial, federal prosecutors filed a sentencing memorandum that explained how the Trump Organization had mischaracterized hush-money payments as “legal expenses” in its bookkeeping. Under New York law, falsifying records by itself is only a misdemeanor, but if it results in the commission of another crime, it becomes a felony. And false business records frequently lead to another offense: tax fraud (N.Y. Tax Law § 1806).

If Trump cooked his books, observes Sheil, that false information would essentially “flow into the tax returns.” The first crime begets the second, making both the bookkeeper and the tax accountant liable. “Since you have several folks involved,” Sheil says, “you could either bring a conspiracy charge, maximum sentence five years, or you could charge each individual with aiding and abetting the preparation of a false tax return, with a max sentence of three years.”

To build a fraud case against Trump, Vance subpoenaed his financial records. But those records alone won’t be enough: To secure a conviction, Vance will need to convince a jury not only that Trump cheated on his taxes but that he intended to do so. “If you just have the documents, the defense will say that defendant didn’t have criminal intent,” Jaroslaw explains. “I call it the ‘I’m an idiot’ defense: ‘I made a mistake. I didn’t mean to do anything.’ ” Unfortunately for Trump, both Cohen and his longtime accountant, Allen Weisselberg, have already signaled their willingness to cooperate with prosecutors. “What’s great about having an accountant in the witness stand is that they can tell you about the conversation they had with the client,” Jaroslaw says.

Through appeals, Trump has managed to drag out the battle over his tax returns. The case has gone all the way to the Supreme Court, back down to the district court, and back up to the appeals court. But Trump has lost at every stage, and it appears that his appeals could be exhausted this fall. Once Vance gets the tax returns, Eisen estimates, he could be ready to indict Trump as early as the second quarter of 2021.

Sheil, for one, believes Vance may already have Trump’s financial records. It’s routine procedure, he notes, for criminal tax investigators working with the Manhattan DA to obtain personal and business tax returns that are material to their inquiry. But issuing a subpoena to Trump’s accountants may have been a way to signal to them that they could face criminal charges themselves unless they cooperate in the investigation.

Once indicted, Trump would be arraigned at New York Criminal Court, a towering Art Deco building at 100 Centre Street. Since a former president with a Secret Service detail can hardly slip away unnoticed, he would likely not be required to post bail or forfeit his passport while awaiting trial. His legal team, of course, would do everything it could to draw out the proceedings. Filing appeals has always been just another day at the office for Trump, who, by some estimates, has faced more than 4,000 lawsuits during the course of his career. But this time, his legal liability would extend to numerous other state and local jurisdictions, which will also be building cases against him. “There’s like 1,037 other things where, if anybody put what he did under a microscope, they would probably find an enormous amount of financial improprieties,” says Scott Shapiro, director of the Center for Law and Philosophy at Yale University.

Even accounting for legal delays, many experts predict that Trump would go to trial in Manhattan by 2023. The proceedings would take place at the New York State Supreme Court Building. Assuming that the judge was prepared for an endless barrage of motions and objections from Trump’s defense team, the trial might move quite quickly — no longer than a few months, according to some legal observers. And given the convictions that have been handed down against many of Trump’s top advisers, there’s reason to believe that even pro-Trump jurors can be persuaded to convict him. “The evidence was overwhelming,” concluded one MAGA supporter who served on the jury that convicted Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. “I did not want [him] to be guilty. But he was, and no one is above the law.”

Trump’s conviction would seal the greatest downfall in American politics since Richard Nixon. Unlike his associates who were sentenced to prison on federal charges, Trump would not be eligible for a presidential pardon or commutation, even from himself. And while his lawyers would file every appeal they can think of, none of it would spare Trump the indignity of imprisonment. Unlike the federal court system, which often allows prisoners to remain free during the appeals process, state courts tend to waste no time in carrying out punishment. After someone is sentenced in New York City, their next stop is Rikers Island. Once there, as Trump awaited transfer to a state prison, the man who’d treated the presidency like a piggy bank would receive yet another handout at the public expense: a toothbrush and toothpaste, bedding, a towel, and a green plastic cup.

(Note: This article appeared in New York magazine on September 14, 2020.)

8 thoughts on “New York: The People v. Donald J. Trump”

  1. What a cheap shot at The Greatest President America has ever had. Comparing him to the deposed leaders of 3rd world countries? You should be ashamed of yourself. Your reputation has taken a nose dive for your attempt at your 5 minutes of fame it took to read this “make believe” crap. When the “deplorables” get wind of this you’ll be the most jaded journalist in recent “Fake News”

  2. I’m guessing @John Kaye is a satirical post, because actual, genuine Trump supporters generally do not have electricity, and consider it ‘witchcraft’.

    If this indeed is a genuine post, then his ability to operate a computer, and type in almost semi-literate English, must have earned him the nickname; “The Professor”.

  3. On a more serious note, I just finished “Fatal Descent”, and thought it was an excellently researched book. The only thing I wanted to know that you didn’t answer, was what your theory was on what might have happened to the passengers after the plane landed ?

    Were they executed ? Or can we expect a ‘Capricorn One’ scenario one day ?

    I’m not expecting you to answer this, i’m just thinking aloud really. I expect you’ll keep any theories about this back incase you write a new book about it.

  4. oops, I meant “The Taking of MH370” not “Fatal Descent” – which for those who don’t know is Mr Wise’s excellent book on the Germanwings mass murder which I am also reading.

    I totally sound like a fake poster plugging your books now ! 🙂

  5. @Andy, Thanks for your kind words! There’s no evidence from the data, but it’s been widely speculated that the easiest way to disable a planeload of potentially rebellious passengers would be to depressurize the cabin while wearing breathing equipment. Intriguingly, Brodsky was a technical diver and we have a photo of Deineka scuba diving.

  6. You are a product of the broken, “snowflake” system. You are a weak individual that is looking for a 15 min of fame.
    Go to your room!
    Thank God for President Trump.

  7. I follow your site for the fascinating science. Not the partisan “science™” and journalisticing. Just like “Scientific” American, you confuse extreme partisan opinion for science and bring real science into disrepute. And then you wonder why people don’t believe the science. Hint – science doesn’t require faith and believing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.