The First Glimmer of Accountability

The indictment of the Trump Organization and its CFO isn’t much—but it’s a start.

Donald Trump
James Devaney / GC / Getty

About the author: Quinta Jurecic is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, a senior editor at Lawfare, and a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

The indictment unsealed on Thursday in New York does not charge Donald Trump personally. It addresses only a small slice of alleged wrongdoing by the organization named after him and which, for most of his life, he ran. It doesn’t speak to any of the numerous instances of misconduct and potential criminality that took place during Trump’s presidency, nor should it be understood as a referendum on that misconduct. But it offers the first glimmer of accountability, all the same.

Trump and his businesses have sparked so many law-enforcement investigations over the past five years that they can be difficult to keep track of. This case, brought by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance and New York Attorney General Letitia James, began in 2018 in response to the federal charges against Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime lawyer. Cohen pleaded guilty to a scheme to violate campaign-finance law by paying women who once had sexual relationships with Trump to stay quiet in the run-up to the 2016 election. Later, testifying before Congress, Cohen accused the Trump Organization of putting forward misleading valuations on real-estate properties in order to get favorable bank loans and avoid taxes. These allegations piqued the interest of New York investigators.

But the indictment released on Thursday against Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg, who pleaded not guilty, and the Trump Organization, which did the same, pulls on neither of those threads. Instead, it has a narrower focus, sketching a conspiracy within the organization to allow executives to skirt taxes by gifting them benefits that were not tabulated as official income. In other words, the company allegedly paid executives off the books—collectively denying New York City, New York State, and the federal government hundreds of thousands of tax dollars. It’s hard not to think of the New York Times report that Trump paid only $750 in income tax in 2017, or of Trump’s 2016 response to an accusation by Hillary Clinton that he had dodged paying taxes for years: “That makes me smart,” he declared.

According to prosecutors, Weisselberg lived rent-free in an apartment paid for by the Trump Organization; his grandchildren’s school tuition was covered by the organization, in some cases by checks signed by Trump himself; he and his wife drove Mercedes-Benzes subsidized by the company. None of this was declared as compensation. The indictment describes a spreadsheet kept by the organization to calculate which portions of Weisselberg’s income should remain hidden from authorities. The level of alleged fraud is “jaw-dropping,” said the University of Chicago’s Daniel Hemel, who studies tax law.

In a statement released after Weisselberg’s arraignment, the former president complained of a “political Witch Hunt by Radical Left Democrats.” Trump himself isn’t identified in the indictment as having committed crimes, but of course his name is all over the document. The alleged scheme within the Trump Organization continued through 2021, during Trump’s presidency. And from 2014 to 2017, prosecutors allege, he personally signed the checks for Weisselberg’s grandchildren’s tuition—meaning that Trump was, presumably, putting his name to those checks during the 2016 presidential campaign, and perhaps even after he won the election. (This allegation echoes the evidence provided by Cohen that Trump, while president, signed a check related to the 2016 scheme to pay off women.)

Vance’s office told the New York judge on Thursday that the indictment is part of an ongoing investigation—which raises the question of where prosecutors are seeking to go next, and whether Trump himself should be worried. Among Trump watchers who cut their teeth on years of presidential scandals, the speculation quickly became feverish: Might Weisselberg decide to cut a deal with prosecutors and testify against Trump? Could Trump’s children be ensnared? Will the investigation next turn to the other areas of fraud described by Cohen?

So the case could yet grow. All the same, the indictment feels a bit like charging Al Capone with, well, tax evasion. It does the job legally but seems, in a profound way, to miss the point. There’s something absurd about the fact that after years of baroque wrongdoing by Trump, some possibly criminal and some not—flouting campaign-finance laws, obstructing justice during Robert Mueller’s investigation, blackmailing the president of Ukraine, egging on an insurrection, and that’s only from 2016 onward—the first criminal charge related to him or his business speaks to none of those acts, and doesn’t even name Trump himself as a defendant.

Other cases may yet cause him trouble. Prosecutors in Georgia are still looking into his effort to strong-arm the state’s election officials into overturning the 2020 vote. And the federal government may still decide to investigate any one of the former president’s many areas of legal vulnerability—though that seems unlikely, given how Attorney General Merrick Garland has so meticulously fashioned himself as apolitical. For now, at least, the New York indictment is what legal accountability is going to look like for Trump. That’s not nothing: Now that it has been charged, the company that Trump refused to give up even after swearing the oath of office may find it difficult to do business, at a time when the pandemic has already caused it to fall on lean times. But the indictment does, on some level, feel strangely unsatisfactory.

During his time in office, Trump did his best to transform the Vance investigation into a referendum on his expansive vision of executive power by challenging Vance’s right to subpoena the financial information of a sitting president. Now, even as Trump has receded into postpresidential life, it’s still tempting to see the Trump Organization indictment as a test of the legal system’s ability to grapple with Trump’s odiousness. But despite Trump’s efforts to flatten the investigation into a plebiscite on whether you like or dislike the former president—he has called the prosecution an attack on the “75M[illion] Voters and Patriots” who supported him in November—the case is not a symbol or a metaphor. It’s a criminal prosecution, which will succeed, or not, on the strength of the particular evidence at hand. The more it hardens into a symbol, the more difficult it will be for prosecutors to avoid the perception that they are going after Trump just because he’s Trump. Letitia James’s failure to recuse herself from the investigation, despite comments from before she took office accusing Trump of criminal conduct, adds to that complication.

Investigators are clearly conscious of the tightrope they have to walk. “Politics has no role in the grand jury chamber,” Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Carey Dunne told the judge on Thursday, “and I can assure your honor that it played no role here.”

Would prosecutors have started this investigation, and brought this case, if Trump had not been president? There’s no real way to know: Trump’s presidency inevitably turned a spotlight on his business dealings. Perhaps things might have been different if he had been willing to disentangle his personal financial interests from his role as president. But then, of course, he wouldn’t have been Trump.

Seen another way, though, it says a great deal that it took Trump’s elevation to the nation’s highest office in order for anyone to pay attention to the level of apparent grift within his organization. While reading the indictment, I kept thinking of the many contractors and employees whom Trump reportedly failed to pay for their work over the years—in one case, putting a small cabinet-building company out of business after Trump refused to provide the money that was owed for the company’s work on the ill-fated Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City. In the summer of 2016, USA Today reported on how Trump had stiffed these workers. Months later, he was elected president. Nobody cared about what he had done.