• What the Hell is Trump Doing in Court?

    November 8, 2023 // 15 Comments »

    It was a busy day in court for Donald Trump.

    In Washington on October 25 Special Counsel Jack Smith asked the court to reinstate a temporary gag order, this time with jail as the penalty, after Donald Trump called former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows (and by extension former allies who have cut deals in his election interference case elsewhere in Georgia) a weakling and coward if he agreed to testify in exchange for immunity. Trump had been under a earlier gag order which barred him from disparaging prosecutors, court staff, and potential witnesses in a pattern that the court filing called “targeting.” The fear was that Trump was calling out those he wanted MAGA supporters to go after. Smith urged Judge Chutkan to “modify the defendant’s conditions of release by making compliance with the Order a condition.”

    On the same day, in response to his violation of a separate New York court gag order Judge Engoron ordered the former president to testify over an insult Trump threw at the judge’s law clerk. The judge found Trump guilty of violating his gag order and ordered Trump to pay a $10,000 fine on top of an earlier $5000. Trump stormed out of the courtroom, his somewhat bewildered Secret Service in tow. Trump technically remains free only on bail.

    Pundits asked if Trump is actually trying to antagonize judges and lose both cases. Or could there be some other reason for Trump’s on-the-face-of-it non-self serving actions?

    — Trump may be breaking up under the strain. One hates to even go near the “Trump is insane” 25th Amendment crowd, who think they can judge someone’s mental state long distance but one has to allow for the possibility that the stress of having his very existence and ego challenged (the NY trial after all concerns Trump’s actual net worth and status as a real estate kingpin) by small-time mooks like a judge and his clerk may have gotten to Trump. We’re seeing it play out as he strives to control his temper (hence the storming out of the courtroom.) If this is even in part an explanation for Trump’s counter-productive behavior in court it is a dangerous one, adding too much unpredictability into already tense situations. Perhaps Trump simply can’t stop himself. He’s “spent a lifetime attacking those who don’t accommodate him,” and he’s not able to quit now.

    — Trump could easily believe none of this matters, certain he will be elected president in November 2024 and be in a position to pardon himself and any others convicted along the way. In Trump’s mind this is all or nothing and the little details, such as the outcome of a specific trial, matter not.

    — It’s all about the appeal, part I. Trump knows he will lose the case in front of Judge Engoron, who has already substantively ruled Trump guilty and is holding the current trial sessions primarily to establish the penalty. By egging the judge on to make statements such as finding a Trump response he did not like a “lie,” ruling “as a trier of fact, I find that the witness is not credible… hollow and untrue” Trump is setting up an appeal claiming the judge is biased against him (otherwise, you generally as a defendant do not do things to encourage the judge to throw the book at you.) It is unclear if this is productive or even needed; there is already plenty to work with in the guise of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, a star prosecution witness who is also a sworn enemy of Trump, a convicted felon, and serial liar singing for his supper. Cohen’s testimony is weak, claiming the former president never directly asked him to over-value Trump Organization assets, but instead implied somehow mind-reading style that he do so.

    — It’s all about the appeal, part II. The judges’ gag orders against Trump rub rough against the First Amendment, which will form the basis of appeals independent of the trial content themselves. The ACLU, no friend of Donald Trump, argues the gag order imposed by U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan in Washington barring Trump from making public statements about special counsel Jack Smith, the defense counsel or members of the court violates the Constitution’s 1A. “No modern-day president did more damage to civil liberties and civil rights than President Trump,” the group wrote in a press release. “But if we allow his free speech rights to be abridged, we know that other unpopular voices — even ones we agree with — will also be silenced.”

    Specifically, the ACLU argued Chutkan’s order is too vague, too broad, and not sufficiently justified. Trump made many “patently false” statements which have “caused great harm to countless individuals,” the group wrote. But he nevertheless “retains a First Amendment right to speak, and the rest of us retain a right to hear what he has to say.” Prior restraint on Trump’s speech must be “precisely defined and narrowly tailored,” the ACLU wrote, arguing that Chutkan’s order “fails that test.” For example, the prohibition on making public statements that “target” certain individuals is “unconstitutionally vague.” Trump “cannot possibly know what he is permitted to say, and what he is not.”

    — It’s all about the appeal, part III. The substance of an appeal is irrelevant, as long as the appeal can be dragged out past the November 2024 election. It is easy to imagine a “throw it all against the wall and see what sticks” approach to buy time. An appeals court could just as easily applaud the two judges for showing restraint when they might have thrown Trump in jail for contempt. No matter, as long as it all chews up the space until the election.

    Trump looks like a man who simply does not care what happens with the current trials, or any of the upcoming others. He is both convinced the system is fully unfair and equally aware that the more trouble he seems to get into the faster his poll numbers rise. Each courtroom defeat, small and procedural or a full-on guilty verdict, simply fans the flames for rally crowds. The cash penalties levied by Judges Engoron and Chutkan for violating gag orders have little meaning.

    But Trump actually being jailed for violating a gag order would grant him official martyr status. Within a week of his release Trump will be comparing himself to the jailed Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, freedom fighters all. He could then literally test an earlier boast by shooting someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any supporters, or perhaps with MAGA cheers in the background simply flipping off one of the judges who dare seek to decide his fate.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    Trump Indicted

    April 4, 2023 // 3 Comments »

    What would you have done if you were Alvin Bragg? Would you have indicted Donald Trump? Or would you have walked away, concerned about accusations you as a Democrat were playing politics, and more concerned the indictment would somehow help the man you are trying to take down? You don’t play with such fire around a guy like Trump casually.

    At Bragg’s insistence, Trump was indicted by a Manhattan Grand Jury on Thursday. The actual charges will not be announced until Trump is arraigned before a judge, likely in about a week. The charges will however be based around Stormy Daniels, who allegedly had sex with Trump in 2006, which he denies, and which she and Michael Cohen once also denied. She then took money in 2016 to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) to keep silent. She willfully violated the NDA to revive her career and profit selling her story to the National Enquirer. Meanwhile, when faced with jail time for all sorts of dirty deeds, Trump’s now disbarred former lawyer Michael Cohen, a felon himself, violated attorney-client privilege to claim on his word the NDA payoffs were actually complex technical violations of New York business records law (a misdemeanor) and Federal campaign finance law (potentially a felony.) If this all sounds complicated, it’s because it is. No wonder even the Washington Post labeled this a “zombie case.” It is also the weakest case in the universe of legal troubles around Trump.

    But there is a bigger question: if you were Bragg, can you win? Will voters object to a district attorney in New York trying to play kingmaker in the 2024 election, prosecuting a Federal case locally in Manhattan? Candidate Trump, surrounded by an aura of legal invincibility, is already earning partisan points claiming he is the victim of banana republic politics, and this indictment will allow him to claim he was right all along. Trump will fire both barrels, one aimed at Bragg, the other likely at Biden (who he will accuse of playing a role.) He was already the victim of partisan use of justice, as the FBI did try to influence both the 2016 election (with Russiagate) and the 2020 (by deep-sixing Hunter Biden’s laptop claiming falsely it was Russian misinformation) and now is taking a swing at 2024 with the Mar-a-Lago documents. If public opinion moves further to Trump’s side, Alvin Bragg through his indictment just reelected Trump to the White House as a sympathy candidate. CIA spooks, no strangers to manipulating elections abroad, call that blowback, and it is a real threat in this instance.

    For the nation’s sake any action against Trump must preserve what is left of faith in the rule of law applied without fear or favor, or risk civil disenfranchisement if not outright civil unrest. Bragg will have to address the case involving former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who maintained an unsecured private email server which processed classified material. Her server held e-mail chains classified at the Top Secret/Special Access Program level which included the names of CIA and NSA employees. Clinton and her team destroyed tens of thousands of emails, potential evidence, as well as physical phones and Blackberries. She operated the server out of her New York (!) home kitchen despite the presence of the Secret Service on property who failed to report it. Her purpose in doing all this appeared to have been avoiding Freedom of Information Act requests during her tenure as SecState ahead of her 2016 presidential run. The Hillary campaign and the DNC also did something naughty in paying for the Steele dossier as “legal expenses” and not campaign expenditures, and got off with only an Election Commission fine.

    In addition, those who claim Trump’s indictment is not political in nature will also have to account for the non-actions against the Obama campaign. Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012 were not found to have violated campaign finance laws and no charges were even levied. During the 2008 campaign donors were able to make contributions using fictitious names, such as “Mickey Mouse” and “Donald Duck,” and the campaign was criticized for not doing enough to prevent fraudulent donations. Another controversy involved the Obama campaign’s use of untraceable prepaid credit cards, which raised concerns about the possibility of illegal foreign contributions. No charges were ever filed.

    There is also the case of John Edwards. Edwards, a former United States Senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, was indicted in 2011, on charges of violating campaign finance laws during his 2008 presidential campaign. The charges stemmed from allegations Edwards used nearly $1 million in illegal campaign contributions to conceal an extramarital affair during his campaign. Sound familiar?

    Specifically, the government alleged Edwards received money from two wealthy donors and used it to support his mistress and their child in return for their silence. The government claimed this constituted a violation of campaign finance laws, which limit the amount of money that individuals can contribute to a campaign and require that such contributions be disclosed. Edwards maintained the payments were gifts and not campaign contributions, and therefore not subject to campaign finance laws. A jury acquitted Edwards on one count of violating campaign finance laws and deadlocked on the remaining five counts. The government ultimately decided not to retry Edwards.

    The other fear which should have held Bragg back is that business records mismanagement and even campaign finance violations are typically dealt with either via administrative penalties and fines (Trump will not go to jail for any of this.) Most of the laws Trump may have broken require some sort of intent to do wrong. In other words, Trump would have had to have taken the steps with Stormy not just for ego or his presidential library or as some crude souvenir of virility but with the specific intent to commit harm. Proving a state of guilty mind — mens rea — will be the crux of any actual prosecution. What was Trump thinking at the time. “It should be clear,” says the New York Law Journal, “Cohen’s plea, obtained under pressure and with the ultimate aim of developing a case against the president, cannot in and of itself establish whether Trump had the requisite mental state.” If DA Bragg has other key witnesses beyond Stormy and Cohen he has not signaled as such.

    The final questions are probably the most important: Bragg knows what the law says. If knowing the chances of a serious conviction are slight, why would he take the case to court? Then again, if knowing the chances for a serious conviction are slight, why would he have gone to the Grand Jury at all, his predecessor and the Department of Justice having passed on this case. No one is above the law, but that includes politics not trumping clean hands jurisprudence as well.

    If Bragg successfully navigates the politics, if he proves his case in court, then what? Trump’s “crimes” are minor. Could Bragg call Trump having to pay a fine or even do some sort of community service during the 2024 campaign a win? It seems petty, as even a conviction would not disqualify Trump’s bid for the White House (Eugene Debs ran for president while locked up.) Controversy is home turf for Trump; he is clearly again the center of attention and the dominant figure in his party. It sure seems Trump wins politically big-picture whether he wins or loses at court. If you were Alvin Bragg, how would you answer accusations of the weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda?

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    The Revenge of Stormy Daniels?

    March 30, 2023 // 14 Comments »

    Convicting Donald Trump for some sort of crime connected to his alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels means taking the word of that porn star and a guy like Michael Cohen, serial liar and convicted felon, over the word of someone many people think has the disposable morality of a porn star and the trustworthiness of a serial liar, Trump himself. That’s likely going to be up to a Manhattan jury if the long-rumored indictment comes through. Next for any of this to matter Trump would have to be reconvicted in the court of public opinion, something that has largely already passed as the rough details of Trump and Stormy’s relationship (financial and otherwise, though Trump denies having an affair with Daniels) have long been chewed over by everyone from law reviews to late night comics. About the only people who really think the walls are closing in, again, are in the cheap seats of blue check Twitter.

    Goodness help us, here’s the rest of the raw material of this criminal caper. Trump may soon be indicted on some sort of campaign finance law violation. This means Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg for the State of New York (Federal prosecutors have long signed out of the cheesy political revenge fantasy business) has convinced a grand jury there is enough evidence to charge Trump with the crime. A grand jury setting means Bragg faced no opposition in laying out his case, as the not-quite-a-defendant is not represented. So no cross examination, no motions to suppress evidence, no hammering away at Michael Cohen as perhaps the least credible witness of all time, and thankfully, no hoary Godfather references to it all in the media. The old joke is you can indict a ham sandwich if the DA is any good, and if Trump is indicted that motto holds true here. Indicted means only the case moves on to the next stage ahead of a possible trial anyway.

    Stormy Daniels, a porn star whose very NSFW antics are all over the internet, has sex with a businessman. She then takes more money to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) to keep silent. Sensing an opportunity when the businessman later runs for president, she willfully violates the NDA to revive her career. Meanwhile, when faced with jail time for all sorts of dirty deeds, the businessman’s now disbarred lawyer, a felon himself, violates attorney-client privilege to claim on his word the NDA payoffs (inherently legal) were actually complex technical violations of campaign finance law. And, oh yeah, most of this naughtiness happened way back in 2006, before Trump was even president. That’s the basic case to bring down Citizen Trump in the ultimate act of political revenge. Fuhgettaboutit!

    It will be interesting in a stop-and-stare-at-a-car-wreck kinda way to  see how DA Bragg presents his case. Problem One is that with paying money as part of an NDA is not illegal; lawyers regularly obtain (here’s a fill-in-the-blanks NDA) discreet resolutions of issues threatening the interests of their clients (“settlements.”) Without admitting guilt, money is paid from Party A to Party B in return for Party B dropping all future claims, agreeing to never mention something again, handing over documents or photos, whatever you’d like. It happens all the time, and in fact is the dirty little secret which keeps sexual harassment alive and well. Wealthy men pay women to remain silent under NDAs. It does not change the legality of all this even if the media calls those payments hush money or payoffs and Michael Cohen a “fixer.”
    Problem Two for Bragg is any criminality must come from twisting a not uncommon occurrence into a violation of a campaign finance law. When Trump had sex with Stormy he was just another philanderer. However, a few years later Trump became a philandering presidential candidate, and that money shifted, maybe, from a legal NDA payoff to something akin to a campaign contribution. The what in this case (money for silence) is clear. It is the why that matters most.
    So Problem Three, and it is a big one, is intent. You have to intend to violate campaign finance laws, not make a mistake or just act like a sleaze. Any illegality comes from the supposition by Michael Cohen that he can speak to Trump’s intent, that the NDA was not, say, to spare Trump’s marriage from new embarrassment, but “for the principal purpose of influencing an election” amid everyone already knowing Trump was a serial philanderer. If the whole was primarily for the purpose of hiding Stormy from voters instead of hiding Stormy from Trump’s wife and kids, then the money was essentially a campaign contribution and whole new set of laws kick in. But “it should be clear,” said the New York Law Journal, “Cohen’s plea, obtained under pressure and with the ultimate aim of developing a case against the president, cannot in and of itself establish whether Trump had the requisite mental state.”
    Thus Cohen’s testimony does not prove Trump knew the payments made to Stormy were illegal. Prosecutors would have to prove that willingness by Trump alongside proving his principal goal was to influence the election. If this ever reaches court, Trump will simply deny that and no jury can say weighing one man’s word against another, especially these mooks, eliminates all reasonable doubt. Felons testifying out of self interest make poor witnesses. Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal offenses, including lying to Congress, tax fraud, and campaign finance violations. Cohen will face questions of personal bias, given his own multiple lawsuits against Trump. He will face questions about whether he received a benefit from prosecutors, early release from prison, for cooperating. If a liar like Cohen is your only witness on Trump’s intent, you really have no witnesses.
    There’s more. Problem Four is prosecutors also have to connect Trump directly to the payment. The check for $35,000 from Trump to Cohen, which was supposedly part of $135k paid to Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen displayed at his 2019 Congressional hearing and ten others alleged to exist do not show what the payments were for. The checks do not have Stormy’s name on them. Cohen simply claimed they were part of his reimbursement for “illegal hush money I paid on his behalf.” The check(s) are not receipts; they could have been for anything. They do potentially expose Trump to another crime, falsifying business records, a misdemeanor in New York.
    They are receipts for a crime only because Cohen says they are. Under direct questioning when he testified before Congress, Cohen claimed unfortunately there was no corroborating evidence. He said he sent fake invoices to Trump only for “legal retainer fees,” so don’t bother with the invoices as evidence because Cohen now says he lied on them claiming it was a retainer fee. The checks total over $400k, because supposedly Trump rolled Cohen’s fee and bonus into the amount, so we just have to take his word for it $135k of that money was for Stormy. Cohen said some of the checks were signed by Don, Jr. and the felony-convicted tax cheat Trump Organization CFO. That means the checks would be used to implicate personally a person who did not sign them. If this all sounds complicated, it’s because it is.
    Problem Five, for Stormy’s payoff to be illegal, it will also be necessary to determine the money came from campaign funds. If it was Trump’s private money, even private money he donated to his own campaign, there is likely no case. Even if the money is shown to be campaign funds, illegality is based on the $2,000 donation limit imposed on the supposed “giver,” Michael Cohen in this case who has already been convicted, a limit which does not apply to the candidate himself. The payment is also not a donation if it was made for an expense that would have been paid even if there were no campaign, like hiding an affair from your wife.
    And so what? There is nothing to stop Trump from running for president if he is under indictment, or even found guilty and serving time. His affair with Stormy, which may be offensive to some voters, has sadly been part of the public conversation around Trump for years. Anyone who has wanted to see Stormy in the buff has done the requisite searches. Trump is not former Democratic vice-presidential nominee John Edwards, who was found guilty in 2012 and withdrew from the race. Edwards was accused of illegally arranging for two wealthy supporters to pay $925,000 to keep his pregnant mistress out of public view during the campaign. This all is no knock-out blow for 2024. Trump’s spokesperson said in a statement, “The Manhattan District Attorney’s threat to indict President Trump is simply insane.” You literally cannot embarrass Trump into quitting. The Dems are going to have to beat Trump another way.

     

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    The People v. Donald Trump

    March 27, 2023 // 5 Comments »

    Here are six things to think about ahead of any indictment and arrest of Donald Trump:

    1 – What is Trump going to be indicted for? Trump may soon be indicted on a campaign finance law violation. This means Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg (Federal prosecutors seem to have long signed out of the cheesy political revenge fantasy business) has convinced a grand jury there is enough evidence to charge Trump with the crime. Since this was a grand jury, Bragg faced no opposition in laying out his case, as the not-quite-a-defendant is not represented. So no cross examination, no motions to suppress evidence, no hammering away at Michael Cohen as perhaps the least credible witness of all time. The old joke is a clever DA can indict a ham sandwich, and if Trump is indicted that motto holds true here.

    2- But I thought this was all about Trump having an affair with some porn star? Stormy Daniels allegedly had sex with Trump in 2006, which he denies, and  which she and Michael Cohen once also denied. She then took money in 2016 to sign a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) to keep silent. Sensing an opportunity when the businessman later ran for president, she willfully violated the NDA to revive her career and profit off selling her story to the National Enquirer. Meanwhile, when faced with jail time for all sorts of dirty deeds, the businessman’s now disbarred former lawyer, a felon himself, violated attorney-client privilege to claim on his word the NDA payoffs were actually complex technical violations of campaign finance law. If this all sounds complicated, it’s because it is. No wonder even the Washington Post labels this a “zombie case.”

    3 – So the problem is the hush money paid in 2016? Not really but sort of. Paying money as part of an NDA is not illegal; lawyers regularly obtain discreet resolutions of issues threatening the interests of their clients. Without admitting guilt, money is paid from Party A to Party B in return for dropping all future claims, agreeing to never mention something again, handing over documents or photos, whatever you’d like. It happens all the time, and in fact is the dirty little secret which keeps sexual harassment alive and well. Wealthy men pay women to remain silent under NDAs. It does not change the legality of all this even if the media calls those payments hush money or payoffs. The what in this case (money for silence) is clear. It is the why that matters most. The why also affects any potential sentence; Trump lying would be a misdemeanor if it is proved that all he did was falsify his business records. But it could be a felony if prosecutors can prove that the falsification was tied to another crime and that’s where campaign finance laws come in.

    4 – The case, if it ever goes to trial, will hinge on intent, what Trump intended the money to do for him, according to Cohen. One has to intend to violate campaign finance laws. Any illegality comes from the supposition by Michael Cohen that he can speak to Trump’s intent, that the NDA was not, say, merely to spare Trump’s marriage some new embarrassment, but “for the principal purpose of influencing an election.” If the purpose was hiding Stormy from voters instead of hiding Stormy from Trump’s wife, then the money could be seen as a campaign contribution and whole new set of laws kick in. But “it should be clear,” says the New York Law Journal, “Cohen’s plea, obtained under pressure and with the ultimate aim of developing a case against the president, cannot in and of itself establish whether Trump had the requisite mental state.” If DA Bragg has other key witnesses beyond Stormy and Cohen he has not signaled as such.
    It’ll be up to a jury to decide if Cohen’s testimony proves Trump knew the payments made to Stormy were illegal. Prosecutors would have to prove that willingness by Trump alongside proving his principal goal was to influence the election. If this ever reaches court, Trump will simply deny everything and it would be a rare jury that says weighing one man’s word against another, especially these knuckleheads, eliminates all reasonable doubt. Felons testifying out of self interest make poor witnesses. Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal offenses, including lying to Congress, tax fraud, and campaign finance violations. Cohen will face questions of personal bias, given his own multiple lawsuits against Trump. He will face questions about whether he received a benefit from prosecutors, early release from prison, for cooperating.
    5 – Seems like an awful lot rests on what the jury “believes” versus what can be proven. Trump need only introduce doubt to prevail here. But that’s not where the jury question will first come up. Trump’s lawyers are already hinting they will demand a change of venue, that by this time everyone in New York either loves or hates Trump (mostly hates, going back to the 1980s) and it will be impossible to seat an impartial jury in Manhattan. Moving the whole show to say Pittsburgh or Seattle will only increase the circus-like atmosphere and will add to Trump’s public-facing argument that this is all unfair.
    6 – Trump denies the affair. So how do we know he paid Stormy to keep quiet about the sex? DA Bragg will need to do some heavy lifting to connect Trump directly to the NDA payment. The check for $35,000 from Trump to Cohen, which was supposedly part of $135k paid to Stormy Daniels, Michael Cohen displayed at his 2019 Congressional hearing and ten others alleged to exist do not show what the payments were for. The checks do not have Stormy’s name on them. Cohen simply claimed they were part of his reimbursement for “illegal hush money I paid on his behalf.” The check(s) are not receipts; they could have been for anything. That Cohen denied everything until 2018 when he changed to confessing everything will feature in any Trump trial.
    Under direct questioning before Congress, Cohen claimed there was no corroborating evidence. He said he sent fake invoices to Trump only for “legal retainer fees,” so don’t bother with the invoices as evidence because Cohen now says he lied on them. The checks total over $400k, because supposedly Trump rolled Cohen’s fee and bonus into the amount, so we just have to take his word for it $135k of that money was for Stormy. Cohen said some of the checks were signed by Don, Jr. and the felony-convicted tax cheat former Trump Organization CFO Alan Weisselberg. That means the checks would be used to implicate personally a person who did not sign them.
    If this case comes to trial, Trump’s side will drag its feet at every step, hoping to push the verdict past the 2024 election. There is nothing to stop Trump from running for president if he is under indictment, or even if somehow found guilty and serving time. His affair with Stormy has been part of the public conversation around Trump for years and is well-digested by voters. There are elements here which would cause a reasonable man to call this overcriminalization, an act of political revenge, an attempt to derail the Trump campaign by the DA in New York. Would Trump garner more sympathy votes than those he might lose running as the first-ever indicted presidential candidate? Will voters object to a district attorney in New York trying to play kingmaker in the 2024 election, taking the vote out of the voter’s hands? Isn’t arresting political opponents a Third World thing? Playing with fire around Trump is never a good idea.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    Second Verse, Same as the First: NY’s Civil Suit Against Trump

    September 27, 2022 // 1 Comment »

    New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against former President Donald Trump, three of his adult children, and other senior members of the Trump Organization alleging business and insurance fraud as well as conspiracy for the same, marking the end of a three-year investigation into Trump and his business. The civil suit is basically a version of the criminal indictments the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and the Manhattan and New York State Attorneys General have failed to generate at the federal and state levels. The suit claims in a nut shell what the criminal cases claimed; Trump over-valued the worth of his properties to use them as collateral for new loans, and then undervalued those same properties come tax time to pay lower taxes.

    The criminal cases have fallen flat because of the need to prove actual criminal intent, that Trump lied intending to commit a crime. This proved impossible when the Trump family would not confess (Trump took the Fifth some 440 times during recent questioning) and when no one could be found to Fredo him by turning states’ evidence in return for some lower sentence himself. What’s left in what has clearly become a prosecution driven by the political need to do something ahead of 2024 is this civil suit. Basically same accusations, same weak evidence, but lower standards of proof with lower penalties.

    Enemies of Trump hope this works out better than previous attempts in New York to prosecute him by the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and failing that, the New York State Attorney General Letitia James. The former already failed in 2012 to indict Trump’s children after they were accused of misleading investors, and faced judicial rebukes in the past for sloppy work and political motivations.

    The narrative runs like this: both offices had been compiling nasty stuff against Trump for years, held back only by custom which prevented them from indicting him as long as he was the president. As of January 20, 2021 he became open game. But since then both offices failed to indict Trump. The New York state system is no such kangaroo court, and affords defendants far more protections than federal courts. There are strict rules governing evidence that can be presented to a grand jury, and even minor procedural errors can result in indictments being thrown out. “If you’re a white-collar defendant, you’d rather be in New York State court than in federal court any day of the week,” said SDNY’s former top deputy.

    The current try is kinda of pathetic, just a lawsuit, which carries no potential criminal jeopardy, so no formal indictment, no possibility of jail time. The suit holds Trump misvalued some New York real estate from 2011-2021 to obtain loans and pay lower taxes, a civil offense at worst usually settled with new assessments or a fine.
    Yet even this case against Trump could be difficult to prove. Property valuations are subjective, and most all financial statements include a disclaimer stating that they have not been audited. Now underline this part: Deutsche Bank and Trump’s other lenders were hardly victims; all of his loans are either current or were paid off, some early. Trump does not use email, so any instructions he might have given his employees about the company’s financial statements are unlikely to be in writing. The lack of a damning email, or a witness inside his company willing to testify against him, will complicate efforts to show Trump intentionally used his financial statements to defraud lenders and insurers.
    For people not named Trump (a key giveaway that this is all political) the city of New York assesses a value to each property for tax purposes. Nearly every property owner in NYC believes his or her assessed value is too high and pushes back, to the point where these disputes are not even handled by a court, instead through a tax commission grievance process. Owners want a lower value to pay less tax, except when they approach a bank for the equivalent of a refi loan, when they want their property to seem more expensive to secure a bigger loan at a better rate. It is the bank who then decides what a property is worth to them as collateral, via their own due diligence.
    It is always complicated, as much art as science; beyond the usual valuation factors of location, location, location, some buildings in New York are iconic, or famous for their brand name (cough, cough, “Trump”), what history they represent, etc. Some just have nice views. Sometimes the bank is generous because in return for the loan they’ll secure some other business of value to them. Over-valuing/under-valuing real estate in New York City is sport, but as a crime is so much not ado about nothing it is not going to send anyone to jail. Imagine the yawns as a jury listens to forensic accountants explain Trump’s tiered exemptions, and how their value is subtracted from the DOF assessed value to calculate a taxable value which is then multiplied by the current tax rate for the specific assigned property class. Next session we’ll talk about somewhat sketchy easements Trump obtained going back to when Mayor Koch was in charge.
    The jury will quickly discover the regulations governing how one values a NY property are dense. Built into the law is an automatic fudge allowing the same property to have both a high market value and a lower asset value. Problems are sorted out as civil matters and usually settled with the city sending out a bill, especially if the bank is not claiming fraud, only the DA, as in Trump’s case.
    And in the end, what? The lawsuit seeks to permanently bar the Trump family members named from serving in officer or director positions in any corporation or business licensed in New York State. The attorney general also seeks to bar the former president and the Trump Organization from entering into any New York real estate acquisitions for five years, and to take back all financial benefits obtained through the allegedly fraudulent practices, estimated to total $250 million. None of those things, even if the suit if fully successful, is likely to have an effect on Candidate Trump and none would prevent him from running for president. Business-wise, Trump merely needs to re-incorporate in another state, maybe business-friendly Florida, to re-start operations.
    The Democrats’ plan to find Trump guilty of something, anything, seems to be coming to its own sad ending, the lawsuit beyond a whimper, not a bang. They have tried to turn belief Trump is evil into crime over the last five years — Emoluments Clause, Russiagate, impeachments I and II, Stormy Daniels, obstruction of justice, and incitement. On the sidelines were extra-judicial attempts connected with the 25th Amendment, having doctors who never examined the man declaring Trump mentally ill, and even accusations of incest. The Southern District of New York previously failed to indict Trump’s children and failed to prosecute Paul Manafort. E. Jean Carroll’s rape-cum-defamation case was so egregiously lousy even the Biden DOJ took Trump’s side. The convictions of Trump associates lawyer Michael Cohen and accountant Allen Weisselberg did not touch the principal himself.
    The SDNY brought no charges. Early this year, the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, instructed prosecutors to halt their effort to seek an indictment of Trump. It looks like Letitia James is all who is left to  make the last flaccid move and then turn off the lights on her way out.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Trump

    Trump is Just Not Going to Jail

    May 9, 2022 // 7 Comments »

    If you had “Trump goes to jail” in the office pool, better double-down on “Trump Gets a Minor Civil Fine.”

    The end of any possible criminal prosecution out of New York over Trump’s finances has come as the grand jury seated to find them has sunseted. The possibility of a civil penalty, likely a fine, looks poor but anything is possible. This is all a long way from predictions when these cases were initiated through the Southern District of New York (SDNY) that the walls were supposedly closing in. Dems, dragging all their Biden baggage along, are going to have to beat Trump at the ballot box, assuming anyone can afford the gas to drive out to vote.

    We need not spend too much time on all the failures preceding those of the SDNY, though a list is educational: DNC server, Putin’s agent, all of Russiagate, Mueller Report, Impeachment I, Impeachment II, and Stormy Daniels. The January 6 campaign is floundering. The IRS has had Trump’s taxes in hands for decades without any criminal prosecutions, and the New Jersey Gaming Commission held Trump’s casino financials without incident. It is possible to conclude however much one might hate Trump, he just is not guilty of any crimes.

    Each prosecutorial dream began with the certainty Trump did something wrong, that the evidence was growing, that some stooge would flip (and the mindless Godfather references), followed by… nothing much. The true believers will always believe, but for most Americans the over-stimulus followed by the let down followed by mumblings it all wasn’t fair again have grown tiresome. Yet there are always teachable moments, even in such farce, and the most recent failure in Manhattan to bring down Trump is one of those.

    Like all of the capers, it begins with the premise Trump is sleazy and any success he enjoyed must be due to cheating. In the instant case, the DA claimed The Trump Organization had over-valued some properties to obtain loans from Deutsche Bank, and then under-valued those same properties to pay lower taxes to the city of New York. This is all that’s left in the civil action in New York against Trump. The investigation along these lines has been running since 2019, so far with no actionable results. The most recent legal move was a contempt citation against Trump over not turning over a couple of cell phones, that after Trump already complied with millions of pages of documents and 13 employees of the Trump Organization sent up for interview. The belief seems to be there must be something in there somewhere.

    For anyone who has owned property in New York, either directly like Trump or via the co-op system like millions of middle class New Yorkers, none of this is a headline. It literally happens all the time. For example, Building A sits on land the City has taxed for hundreds of years. The value of that land in that context is hardly in contention. But if someone wanted to use that land as collateral for a loan, they might instead explain how the ground floor of the building is now ready for flush post-Covid clients to return. They might cite a new luxury building across the street, which will raise local real estate prices. They might show how the average tenant stays longer in their building then elsewhere, assuring stability. What something is worth — a building, a Pokeman card, a drink of water in the desert — is very much a negotiation between two sides. This is known as valuation.” There are numerous methods of assessing the value of a property. In New York you have your assessed value, your transitional value (Tax Class 2, 3, and 4 only) and other variables such that there are lawyers who specialize in nothing else.

    Banks, which look to the future to make sure their loan will be profitable, understand well what the DA is trying to avoid, that property valuation is inherently subjective. It is important to note Trump loan seller Deutsche Bank has raised no objections, made no claims of fraud, and has not asked the DA to look into all this. Nope, the Manhattan DA’s office itself scanned the skies over Gotham and decided they saw a crime. Some say it was a political action, because in almost every other value dispute case in New York history the issue was sorted out by negotiation, and at last resort, by a special civil court that does nothing else. No one can say Trump is the only instance where the City has jumped from valuation to a criminal case with a grand jury, but it is damn hard to find another modern example.

    For the New York DA to “win” a political case like this, some written decision by a no-name magistrate judge’s tax court saying Trump should pay some more property tax is far from enough. So, they had to imagine the case as a criminal one, and that’s where everything falls apart (as with obstruction, as with incitement.) Though the law differs with obstruction and incitement to some extent, basically to win these as a criminal cases the DA has to prove criminal intent. So prosecutors would have had to prove not just that Trump inflated the value of his assets, but that he intended to break the law doing so. Even harder is to show the valuation was Trump’s personal decision, near impossible to do with massive, complex corporations where the actual decision maker is traditionally obscured exactly to avoid such liability.

    Prosecutors fell victim to their own prejudices. They had hoped to “flip” Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s longtime finance chief by drumming up equally weak criminal tax charges against him. Those charges have to do with Weisselberg accepting car service and apartment payments from Trump and allegedly not declaring them properly as income on his taxes. These cases are again typically settled with a fine (though Weisselberg maintains innocence) not jail. The infamous Al Capone tax case is infamous because it was so unique. Weisselberg, with his years of financial experience, has a pretty good idea he is not going to jail and thus has little incentive to rat out Trump if indeed he had anything to rat about.

    That pretty much left prosecutors with Michael Cohen, the guy who pleaded guilty to nine criminal offenses, including lying to Congress, tax fraud, and campaign finance violations. Cohen would have faced questions of personal bias, given his own multiple lawsuits against Trump. He would have faced questions about whether he received a benefit from prosecutors, early release from prison, for cooperating. If a liar like Cohen is your only witness on Trump’s intent, you really have no witnesses.

    There are still 19 cases pending against Trump, including a number of civil suits. Maybe one of them will land a blow. But none have the potential to be the knock-out punch Dems thought was an easy route to winning 2024.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Democracy, Trump