Trump exposed as prosecutors take first step in high-stakes chess game | Donald trump

Michael Cohen appeared dizzy in the latest episode of his podcast, Mea Culpa. Allen Weisselberg, a key lieutenant of Donald Trump, Cohen’s former boss, was on the verge of being indicted alongside the Trump company with tax evasion.

“This affair is being pursued as a mob affair. And that means they start at the bottom of the tree and work their way up, rocking the smaller fish with the pressure on people like Weisselberg to tear up on their old boss of bosses! Cohen said, happily mixing up his metaphors.

Cohen knows this score. Trump has been under investigation by top New York prosecutors for three years – thanks in large part to Cohen, once his trusted lawyer. Cohen – who once said he would “take a bullet” for Trump – turned on the former president as he was sentenced to 36 months in prison for crimes including facilitating illegal payments to make silence two women who allegedly had sex with Trump.

On the surface, Weisselberg’s charges appeared to be “smaller fish.” In an interview with Politico, Trump’s attorney Ronald Fischetti said: “It’s like Shakespeare’s play Much Ado About Nothing. It’s so small I can’t believe I’m going to have to try a case like this.

But surfaces can be deceptive.

After three years of subpoenas, Supreme Court hearings and existential legal wrangling over the legality of charges against a United States President for wrongdoing, the dreaded New York prosecuting team indicted an accountant little-known 73-year-old for defrauding taxpayers of $ 1.7 million. over 15 years. That’s a lot of money for most people, but not an amount that Trump would worry about, which Forbes says is worth $ 2.4 billion.

To downplay the importance of this week’s indictment, however, would be a mistake. Along with Weisselberg, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and New York State Attorney General Letitia James also indicted the Trump Organization with tax evasion, the start of a process that could make it grow. Trump’s secret empire.

The salvo in the long legal battle will, at the very least, envelop Trump for years in legal trouble, and at worst could destroy his family business and put not only Weisselberg but the members of the Trump family who run his business and Trump. himself in the dock.

The indictment “would raise the unprecedented prospect that a former president would have to defend the company he founded and has run for decades against charges of criminal behavior,” Cohen cooed.

No longer isolated by demands for presidential protection, Trump faces a flotilla of legal action. Along with the charges brought against Weisselberg and the Trump Organization this week, Vance and James are investigating questionable payments to Trump’s former sexual partners and whether the value of real estate in his company’s portfolio has been manipulated for to defraud insurance companies and banks and to generate illegal tax breaks. .

In some ways, the charges against Weisselberg give us a glimpse of the bumpy road ahead for the former president.

“It was framed as a ‘benefits’ issue,” said Daniel Hemel, a University of Chicago law professor, an expert in taxation and federal courts. “Another way of looking at it is that the Trump Organization was paying its CFO [chief financial officer] under the table.”

Such a move – if proven – would be an extraordinary thing for a company the size of Trump, and will likely lay the groundwork for what lies ahead.

A parallel case reported by Hemel was the prosecution of Leona Helmsley, the Empress of Manhattan Hotels and longtime partner of Donald Trump.

Helmsley v Trump had been a Manhattan feud for ages. Trump was an admirer of Harry Helmsley, the billionaire real estate mogul who once owned the Empire State Building. Leona Helmsley not so much. He once called it “shame on humanity”. Helmsley simply said, “I hate Donald Trump.

Leona Helsmley, who was sentenced to four years in prison for tax evasion. Photograph: Characteristics of Rex

In 1988, the Helmsleys were charged with evading over $ 4 million in income tax. In another historic twist, the charges were laid by Rudy Giuliani, then a federal prosecutor and more recently one of Trump’s staunchest allies.

The following year, Helmsley – her husband was too ill to stand trial – was sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted of 33 counts of tax evasion, including fraudulently loading a dance floor in $ 1 million marble for their mansion to their hotel and real estate empire.

“These are unequivocally things that are business expenses,” Hemel said. Even Trump agreed, claiming shortly after Leona Helmsley’s death that it was “dumb” for her husband to commit tax evasion “because he was such a rich man.”

Given this sentiment, why would the Trump Organization – allegedly – prepare the books for relatively small amounts of money?

Future cases may provide an answer. Weisselberg and the company deny any wrongdoing and have said they will fight the case in court, but the cases will explode Trump’s finances, which he fought to prevent, even going so far as to go against the recent presidential precedent and refusing to publish his tax returns.

But while there are many similarities between the polarizing property plutocrats Trump and Helmsley, Trump’s case is in many ways unusual.

First, Hemel said, it is highly unusual for a company as large as Trump’s to engage in this kind of alleged tax fraud. With his army of lawyers and accountants, it should have been easy enough for his advisers to find perfectly legal ways to avoid paying taxes – just as the revelations from ProPublica showed his billionaire peers did.

Second, when a tax evasion scheme is exposed as potentially prosecutable, it is highly unusual for companies to fight these accusations. The normal course of action is to apologize and pay.

Let’s add that in this case, the man at the top is a former President of the United States and: “Everything about this matter is unusual and everything is political,” Hemel said. “That doesn’t mean the district attorney is wrong to go after him.”

In the high-stakes game of chess that Vance and James are now playing against Trump, this is an opening move that immediately threatens one of their opponent’s key pieces.

Weisselberg has worked for the Trump family for almost 50 years. Outside of the family, and arguably inside, no one knows how the Trump business works better than he does. His two sons worked with Trump. Jennifer Weisselberg, one of his son’s ex-wives, is a key prosecution witness and has handed over what his lawyer, Duncan Levin, describes as 10 boxes of banker evidence to authorities.

Pressure is being put on Weisselberg to turn around, but his indictment also puts pressure on Trump insiders further down the tree.

Robert Mintz, former federal organized crime prosecutor and now a partner at law firm McCarter & English, said: “Complex cases of white collar fraud are very difficult to prove and generally require more than financial records to prove evidence. clear of crime. Prosecutors typically build these cases with the help of a cooperating witness who can guide them through the documents and add an insider’s perspective to the plot.

As Cohen pointed out this week, Trump can no longer keep the promise of a presidential pardon to his allies. In the face of potential ruin and prison, will Weisselberg remain loyal? And as accusations keep coming, where will the others decide their loyalty?

“Loyalty is hard to maintain when it can put you in jail,” Hemel said.

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