There was plenty of awful legal news for President Trump this week, but the worst may have come from an official who hasn’t yet been sworn in.
Letitia James, who will become the New York state attorney general next month, told NBC she plans to “use every area of the law to investigate President Trump and his business transactions and that of his family as well.” James also said she hopes to pursue state charges against Trump associates whom the president might pardon for federal crimes.
No wonder Trump was so untethered when Chuck and Nancy dropped by.
Trump has been walking a tightrope of lies all his adult life, and now he is teetering. He has inflated his wealth. He has aggrandized his business acumen. He has managed to convince supporters that he is a respected businessman who brilliantly commanded a vast real estate empire. In a fanciful 2015 statement of his net worth, he claimed that his brand alone — just the name Trump — was worth $3 billion.
I wonder what it’s worth now.
In reality, Trump has never come anywhere near the top rank of New York real estate developers. He ran not a huge, sprawling enterprise but a small family firm in which he and his children had direct control. He was seen as so unreliable that genuine moguls refused to have anything to do with him. When he tried to go big — risking everything on casino development in Atlantic City — he failed miserably, despite his father’s efforts to bail him out. His bankers were left holding the bag, and now most major financial institutions won’t lend the Trump Organization a dime. It was Trump’s undeniable skill as a television performer on “The Apprentice” that saved him from total ruin.
Now the law is beginning to squeeze him from all directions. His former consigliere, Michael Cohen, was sentenced Wednesday to three years in prison. One of the crimes Cohen confessed to committing was violating federal campaign-finance laws by orchestrating six-figure payments to a Playboy model and a porn star, in the weeks before the 2016 election, to ensure their silence about sexual encounters they say they had with Trump. Cohen says he did this at Trump’s direction.
Trump’s see-no-evil allies dismiss Cohen as a proven liar about other matters. But also Wednesday, the company that owns the National Enquirer — American Media Inc. (AMI), which is run by Trump’s close friend, David Pecker — admitted playing a major role in that same hush-money scheme. The aim, according to the company, was to help Trump win the election.
Trump responded by tweeting that “I never directed Michael Cohen to break the law.” But in the past, the president has also said that there weren’t any hush-money payments; that if such payments were made, he didn’t know about them; and that the payments, which totaled $280,000, were a “simple private transaction.”
The bottom line is that two witnesses, Cohen and AMI, independently now implicate the president of the United States in the commission of two felonies.
The campaign-finance case is being brought by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. Back in Washington, meanwhile, special counsel Robert Mueller has been busy as well.
We learned this week that Michael Flynn, Trump’s short-lived national security adviser, has met with Mueller’s team 19 times to tell them what he knows. We also learned that Cohen has been eagerly cooperating with the Mueller probe. This means that at least two people in a position to know whether collusion with the Russians took place are singing like songbirds.
Potentially more serious for Trump and his family in the long run, however, is what the New York state probe might discover.
How much of the Trump Organization’s revenue has come from the sale of luxury real estate to oligarchs from Russia and other kleptocracies? Where did these buyers’ money come from? Why was Deutsche Bank — recently raided by German authorities and under investigation for money laundering — the only major financial institution willing to lend money to Trump in recent years? Where did Trump’s company get the large amounts of cash used in several transactions that Washington Post reporters uncovered? How much commingling of funds was there between Trump’s company and his eponymous foundation?
Trump’s longtime accountant, Allen Weisselberg, has turned state’s evidence. He may be the Virgil who guides federal, state and local prosecutors through a Trumpian inferno of shell companies and opaque transactions. The outlines of Trump’s fate begin to emerge.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is email@example.com.