Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
Donald Trump has long evaded the consequences of his questionable business ethics and personal and political scandals. But the grand jury indictments returned against his company and a top executive will test the ex-President’s charmed life as never before.
The charges, expected to be unsealed Thursday, are related to alleged tax crimes over perks and benefits awarded to employees, including rent-free homes, car leases and bonuses, people familiar with the matter told CNN.
The indictments target the Trump Organization and chief financial officer and Trump right-hand man Allen Weisselberg. Although the former President is not expected to be charged, according to his lawyer, the singling out of the firm on which he built his “art of the deal” legend is a personal blow already provoking his ire.
The charges are the first to emerge from a probe of Trump and his businesses by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance that has been going on for more than two years. It has looked at issues including whether Trump inflated the value of his assets and properties for insurance purposes but undervalued them when calculating his tax liabilities.
The significant legal escalation is also sure to have wider political consequences as Trump seeks to relaunch his political career after his defeat to President Joe Biden and hints at another White House run in 2024.
It will offer the former President a dubious route to more time in the spotlight that he craves, fuel new claims that he’s the innocent victim of establishment witch hunts and prolong the already acrimonious national reckoning over one of the most divisive presidencies in history.
He is weaponizing the charges for political gain — even before they are unsealed.
“They will do anything to stop the MAGA movement (and me), even if it involves prosecutorial misconduct and harassment of a political opponent, which they are using at levels rarely seen before,” Trump said in an incandescent statement on Monday.
“They leak, they lie, and they campaign based on information that has already been gone through in other of the many investigations I have put up with,” Trump said, characteristically manipulating moments when he is held to account to feed the sense of personal grievance he shares with supporters.
CNN legal analyst Elie Honig said the expected unsealing of the charges on Thursday represents a “good news/bad news” situation for the former President.
“The bad news is your company is about to get indicted — the company that bears your name. That means they’re going to have a long, expensive, difficult legal battle and if they’re convicted, that means they could have to pay major fines, restitution, even could spell the end of the Trump Org.”
“The good news if you’re Donald Trump is you’re not going to jail based on an indictment of the Trump Org. No individual can go to jail based on an indictment of a corporation,” Honig told CNN’s Poppy Harlow on Wednesday.
The stakes for prosecutors in what would otherwise be a little-noticed white-collar case are also enormous, since they are sizing up a firm owned by a billionaire former President who is the effective leader of the Republican Party. Claims of political motivations will become even more acute if these charges are the only ones that result from the investigation.
The showdown between the Trump Organization and prosecutors will mark another tumultuous drama in the ex-President’s life of bankruptcies, high-profile divorces and the abuses of power that led to two impeachments. By trashing the truth and refusing to allow his business reversals to derail his frequent comebacks, Trump — with the help of relentless legal strategies — has carved out a reputation as an ultimate survivor.
His support among GOP lawmakers has enabled him to evade accountability for shattering political norms while in office — including trying to get Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election to hurt Biden. But the legal system brings a different level of answerability. If Trump’s company — over which he once wielded complete power — is proved guilty of tax crimes, the former President will not enjoy the kind of impunity guaranteed for his political transgressions by his mystical hold on Republican base voters.
The indictments will come as Trump faces scrutiny on multiple fronts. His lies about election fraud last November are continually being undermined by fresh evidence. And the House of Representatives on Wednesday voted to form a select committee to investigate his incitement of the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. The move comes after Senate Republicans killed off an attempt to set up a bipartisan, independent commission to look into the insurrection. Committee hearings are likely to refresh public memories of the mob assault on the Capitol and of Trump’s wider attack on democracy — just as he heads out onto the midterm election campaign trail.
Trump’s ‘eyes and ears’
The indictment will pile even more pressure on Weisselberg, who once described himself as Trump’s “eyes and ears” at the firm, to cooperate with prosecutors — and set up a fateful test of his loyalty to the former President.
Weisselberg’s lawyers have told prosecutors he will not cooperate and he is expected to plead guilty. Although he is reputed to know all the secrets of the Trump Organization, there is no public evidence so far of wrongdoing that might implicate the former President.
But Weisselberg’s knowledge about almost every aspect of the former President’s finances could provide a valuable resource for prosecutors. His relationship with Trump dates back decades, and he served as the treasurer of Trump’s charity. He helped prepare Trump’s tax returns and is the only non-family member to serve as trustee of the trust that holds the President’s interest in his own companies.
Vance’s probe has been joined by New York state Attorney General Letitia James, who, like Vance, is a Democrat, prompting furious claims by Trump that he is being persecuted by “radical left” officials.
The investigations are ongoing and this week’s developments do not preclude future charges against other members of the Trump Organization’s hierarchy. But it’s also possible that no further charges will follow and that prosecutors do not have sufficient evidence to charge the former President — even if they want to.
Weisselberg is expected to turn himself in to prosecutors Thursday morning, two sources with knowledge of the situation told CNN. The dramatic development came after lawyers for the Trump Organization spent time this week trying to persuade prosecutors not to lay charges in the case.
Mary Mulligan, a lawyer for Weisselberg, declined to comment. A spokesman for Vance also declined to comment. Trump Organization lawyers didn’t respond to a request for comment.
But the details of the indictments against Weisselberg and the Trump Organization may begin to answer some of the questions about the breadth of this probe and how much it threatens Trump.
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CNN’s Kara Scannell, Erica Orden and Sonia Moghe contributed to this story.