Donald Trump must be feeling more than usually unassailable. The former US president successfully saw off two impeachments and a special counsel investigation into Russia links. Now, the chances of him facing a jury in his home town over alleged financial chicanery look decidedly slimmer. Two top prosecutors in the Manhattan district attorney’s criminal probe of Trump have unexpectedly quit, a month after the new DA, Alvin Bragg, took office. All the signs point to the probe being wound down. But Trump, despite his love of bombast, would be wise to keep his own counsel on the matter: his legal woes are far from over.
With the criminal probe waning, a parallel civil case on similar ground is in the ascendant. Overseen by the New York attorney-general, Letitia James, it targets Trump, his three eldest children, and the family-owned property group, the Trump Organization. James says she has found “significant evidence” of fraud by the Trumps through misrepresenting the value of office towers and golf courses. A judge has granted her permission to question Trump, Donald Jr and Ivanka under oath. They have said they will appeal that decision. It is unlikely that James is relying on them saying much anyway: another Trump son, Eric, invoked his fifth amendment right against self-incrimination 500 times under questioning from her office.
Instead, it is James’s methodical approach to evidence-gathering that is proving to be a thorn in the side of Trump, and his future ability to do business. The recent decision by Mazars, Trump’s accountants, to withdraw a decade of his accounts, saying they could no longer be relied upon, was also a stroke of luck.
True, the stakes of the civil probe are far lower than those of a criminal investigation: in the event of proving wrongdoing, James’s office can only seek a financial penalty. But that is still problematic for Trump since a finding of fraud could stymie his ability to refinance sizeable loans that are becoming due. He can hardly look to sanctioned Russian banks now either.
James’s investigation, with its lower burden of proof, is more likely to succeed than that of Bragg’s prosecutors ever was. It was always going to be tough proving beyond all reasonable doubt that the former president fiddled his finances. Despite Mazars’ move, prosecutors seem to lack a Trump insider who could explain complex accounts to a jury. Besides, banks — which are meant to do their own due diligence into notoriously subjective property values — hardly make for ideal victims.
Bragg, who was reportedly unconvinced by the case, prompting the departure of his top prosecutors, may then have made the correct assessment. But in the court of public opinion, he now must prove that he has the appetite to take on big-ticket cases that are inherently risky.
Predictably, Trump has labelled James and Bragg, who are both Democrats and happen to be black, as politically motivated racists. That is nonsense, but it is impossible to strip politics from any investigation of a former president. Pundits predict that James may follow her predecessors, Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo, to the governor’s mansion. There is a reason why AG is jokingly described as shorthand for “aspiring governor”.
Meanwhile, far from Manhattan, another criminal case against Trump is gaining momentum. A district attorney in Georgia is investigating whether Trump tried to sabotage the 2020 election results by allegedly leaning on a local official. That speaks to a potential abuse of presidential power that any jury could understand.