How Donald Trump Got Caught in a Legal Vise
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As President Donald Trump and his lawyers turn toward the new year, they’ll have to contend with a legal narrative that’s taken fuller shape through a flurry of court filings and news reports that began landing about three weeks ago and extended through Friday afternoon: Members of Trump’s presidential campaign — and possibly “Individual 1” himself — may have orchestrated a number of criminal conspiracies that took root before and during the 2016 presidential campaign, continued after Trump won the election, and have tainted the White House’s policies and torn at its operations ever since.
The breadth of investigations is so sweeping — as many on social media and reporters with the Washington Post, the Associated Press, and Bloomberg News have already noted — that few of the worlds Trump inhabits have escaped prosecutors’ attention. The Trump Organization, the Trump Foundation, the Trump family, the Trump campaign, the Trump transition, the Trump inauguration, and the Trump White House are all being probed for wrongdoing.
The Trump team’s possible collusion with Russia to sabotage and tilt the 2016 election, a probe spearheaded by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, pulls many strands of the investigations together. Trumplandia’s intersection with Russia may have started with business propositions more than a decade ago (such as the Trump SoHo hotel and condominium), and included more recent undertakings like a project in Moscow, before evolving into a political partnership during the 2016 campaign after Trump’s presidential prospects brightened.
But there are many other threads, some related to Russia and some not, that investigators are pulling on. The Trump inauguration raised $107 million, and $40 million of that amount remains unaccounted for; Ivanka Trump, according to a joint report from ProPublica and WNYC, refereed payments to Trump’s Washington hotel during the inauguration. The Wall Street Journal said last week that federal investigators are examining whether inauguration donors gave money in exchange for policy favors.
Michael Cohen, a former Trump attorney, has told prosecutors that Trump directed him to violate campaign finance laws by paying hush-money to two alleged paramours during the 2016 campaign to keep Trump’s presidential bid alive. David Pecker, publisher of the National Enquirer, said he helped bury stories about Trump’s affairs for the same reason. New York law enforcement officials are probing how Trump managed his charitable foundation, and they and federal law enforcement officials have also corralled the president’s longtime accountant and chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, for questioning.
“Let me point out that there are a lot of unanswered ethical, legal and factual questions but clearly this was not a good week for President Trump, nor for his campaign organization and these allegations are concerning,” said Senator Susan Collins, a Republican, in an interview Sunday with CNN’s Jake Tapper. “But we need to wait until we have the entire picture. And that's why it's so critical that the special counsel be allowed to complete his investigation unimpeded so that we can have the full picture.”
The reality, however, is that Trump is having much more than a bad week. Mueller’s investigation, which Trump routinely pillories as a “witch hunt,” may end up being narrowly drawn around the 2016 campaign, collusion and obstruction of justice — and conclude relatively soon. On the other hand, investigations in New York, including the state attorney general’s probe of Trump’s charity and finances and the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s examination of Cohen’s dealings with the president, could wind up reaching back years into Trump’s business history — well beyond some of the events that have come to light in the last week — and proceed for much longer than the Mueller probe.
If that’s the course the various investigations follow, then Trump may emerge as a brazen grifter who, by aspiring to the White House like a wizened, soiled version of Icarus, flew beyond the boundaries of his own luck and abilities and delivered his business, children and well-being into the hands of prosecutors.
And it’s not only law enforcement officials nipping at the president’s heels. The House of Representatives, which Democrats will control come January, are teeing up probes that could explore new angles and go on longer than the Mueller investigation.
Representative Adam Schiff, a Democrat who will head the House Intelligence Committee, said he plans to dig deeply into Trump’s finances. On Sunday, he told NBC’s Chuck Todd that he wants to examine Trump’s relationship with Deutsche Bank AG because it could expose “a form of compromise” with Russia. (I wrote a recent column detailing Trump’s history with Deutsche after German authorities raided the bank in a money laundering probe, noting that the House Financial Services Committee also wants to explore the Trump-Deutsche relationship.)
“The concern about Deutsche Bank is that they have a history of laundering Russian money," Schiff told NBC. “And this, apparently, was the one bank that was willing to do business with the Trump Organization.”
Last week, Representative Nancy Pelosi, the likely incoming House speaker, said that Democrats will also try to obtain Trump’s income tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service. That promise is likely to ignite a lengthy legal battle with the president, who, unlike his predecessors of recent decades, has declined to make his tax returns public.
In all of the recent legal filings that touch on events in which Trump is involved — hush-money payments and the Moscow project, for example — Trump doesn’t come across as a mere bystander. At a minimum, his actions are the kind that often leave someone described as an “unindicted co-conspirator.” A worst-case scenario is that Trump, depending on how presidential powers and immunity ultimately get defined and adjudicated, could be portrayed as the chief architect of some of the schemes and criminal activities that have swarmed around him.
Trump never thought he would win the presidential election that has landed him in a legal vise. He had seen his previous presidential bids as free marketing opportunities and he likely was drawn to the 2016 campaign for the same reason. (“Against all odds, I decide to run for President & continue to run my business-very legal & very cool,” he tweeted recently.) That sort of opportunism undoubtedly seeped down to everyone working for Trump on his campaign and in his White House.
But the president and many of those around him — including advisers and family members — pursued business opportunities or political collaborations long after they had passed the point of simply being unseemly. And now they’re all exposed to the sharp edge of the law.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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