America is inching closer to a possibility it has never seen before:
the indictment and trial of a former president.
The country has not been through anything like this before.
The ongoing investigation is sweeping. James began it as a civil investigation following the 2019 congressional testimony of Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen,
that the Trump Organization had lied about the value of its assets in order to secure loans and insurance and to reduce its tax liability.
“large portions of debt owed by the Trump Organization” relating to the Trump International Hotel and Tower, in Chicago,
that were claimed as taxable income, and the valuation of Trump National Golf Club, in Los Angeles.
By law, grand juries operate in secret, but it’s publicly known that Vance has also subpoenaed Mazars USA LLP, Trump’s personal accounting firm for financial records
relating to the former president and his businesses.
In July 2020, the Supreme Court rejected a bid to protect those records from disclosure on presidential-immunity grounds, and Vance finally obtained Trump’s returns in February of this year.
Vance’s office has reportedly interviewed Cohen at least eight times, and Cohen has stated that: “Unfortunately for Trump, I have backed up each and every question posed by the district
attorney’s office” with “documentary evidence.”
Vance has also sought records from two of Trump’s largest creditors, Deutsche Bank AG and Ladder Capital Corp, and from Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School, which is attended by the
grandchildren of the Trump Organization’s CEO, Allen Weisselberg, who has worked for the Trump family since 1973.
In 2017, he became the only nonfamily member to serve with Trump’s sons, Eric and Don Jr., to manage the trust established to hold Donald Trump’s business assets while president.
According to the grandchildren’s mother, Jennifer Weisselberg, more than $500,000 in tuition was paid through checks signed by either Allen Weisselberg or Trump himself
as part of compensation for Allen Weisselberg’s son, Barry, from 2012 to 2019.
before the 2016 election.
For her part, James has also subpoenaed the Trump Organization for records relating to “consulting fees” it paid to Ivanka Trump,
in addition to documents regarding the various properties implicated in the investigation.
In October, Eric Trump sat for a deposition by lawyers in James’s office.
The Trump Foundation dissolved amid an investigation by James’s predecessor, Barbara Underwood, into whether it violated laws in connection with Donald Trump’s 2016
presidential campaign and whether its charity work was otherwise legitimate.
Only criminal charges can produce jail time.
Although indictments can be filed against corporations—which the Department of Justice has deemed “‘legal persons’ … capable of committing crimes” and
“criminally liable for the illegal acts of its directors, officers, employees, and agents”—corporations can’t go to jail.
One question of late is whether either jurisdiction could force Trump to appear in New York in the event that he is criminally charged, given that he is lodged primarily in his Mar-a-Lago estate
in Florida, though he recently moved to his country club in Bedminster, New Jersey. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is a staunch Trump ally, and Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg
has publicly acknowledged that “informal conversations” have occurred regarding whether DeSantis could intervene “in case an indictment happens.”
In fact, this is a rare circumstance in which the Constitution is quite explicit regarding a governor’s obligation to respect an extradition request from another state:
Article IV, Section 2 provides that “a person charged in any state with treason, felony, or other crime … shall on demand of the executive authority of the state from which he fled,
be delivered up, to be removed to the state having jurisdiction of the crime.”
A statute of troubling origins dating from 1793 and known as the Fugitive Slave Act sets forth procedures for extradition, which the Supreme Court has affirmed.
As president, Donald Trump dodged conviction despite two impeachment trials on three counts of constitutional wrongdoing.
Now his own criminal and civil liability, as well as that of his businesses, his staff, and his children, are squarely within the sights of the rule of law.
Former Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put it plainly in his remarkable speech justifying his vote to acquit Trump for his role in the January 6 insurrection at the United States Capitol:
“We have a criminal justice system in this country.
We have civil litigation.
And former presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.
This story is part of the project “The Battle for the Constitution,” in partnership with the National Constitution Center.