The long-forecast criminal case against the Trump Organization was finally unveiled Thursday, via indictments against the organization as a whole and its chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg.
The 15 charges were brought by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., a Democrat who has investigated the Trump Organization along with New York Attorney General Letitia James, also a Democrat. Weisselberg has pleaded not guilty.
Here are some of the key take-aways.
These are the first charges stemming from the investigation, but they aren’t as serious as some wagered they might be. The 15 counts include conspiracy, grand larceny in the second degree, multiple counts of tax fraud and multiple counts of falsifying records. All 15 counts apply to Weisselberg. Most also include the Trump Organization as a whole.
The alleged crimes took place over a more than 15-year period, between 2005 and today, with the indictment citing an alleged lengthy “scheme to defraud” the government. They include Weisselberg allegedly evading taxes on $1.7 million of income. The charges say Weisselberg avoided more than $130,000 in taxes he should have paid.
Prosecutors allege that Trump Organization executives received “secret pay raises” while failing to pay the proper amount of taxes.
“To put it bluntly, this was a sweeping and audacious illegal payment scheme,” said prosecutor Carey Dunne.
The Trump Organization’s lawyers declined to comment on the specifics of the indictment.
At the same time, prosecutors indicated there could be more to come. They asked for a protective order to limit disclosure of the proceedings, citing an ongoing investigation.
Mentions of Trump/”Unindicted Co-conspirator #1″
The main question in all of this, of course, is how much any of it can be connected personally to former President Donald Trump. And the indictment makes only a few mentions of Trump by name. Each time it refers to an entity or a signature in the former president’s name, rather than specific actions taken by Trump.
There are some intriguing references to an unnamed “Unindicted Co-conspirator #1,” but it’s not at all clear that is Trump — and significant reasons to believe it’s not.
“From at least 2005 through the date of this indictment, the named defendants and others, including Unindicted Co-conspirator #1, agreed to and implemented a compensation scheme with the object of enabling Weisselberg to underreport his income to federal authorities, and thereby evade taxes and falsely claim federal tax refunds to which he was not entitled,” the indictment says early on.
It says later: “On or before April 5, 2010, the Trump Corporation, acting through its agent, Unindicted Co-conspirator #1, underreported Allen Weisselberg’s taxable income for the tax year 2009.”
Unlike in the criminal case against former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, in which Trump was clearly referred to as “Individual 1,” this isn’t so obviously Trump. But while many wrongly labeled Trump an unindicted co-conspirator in that case (Trump was implicated but was not labeled a co-conspirator), in this case prosecutors say this person participated in the crimes.
One possibility would seem to be that it’s Matthew Calamari, whom the Wall Street Journal reported last week was under significant scrutiny. Calamari was not otherwise named in the indictment and hasn’t been charged. But like Weisselberg, he has been around Trump for decades, starting as Trump’s bodyguard in 1981 and later becoming the Trump Organization’s chief operation officer. In other words, there are significant reasons prosecutors would be interested in him.
There are all kinds of reasons to label someone as an unindicted co-conspirator (just not the ones Tucker Carlson recently laid out). Chief among them is that prosecutors believe the person engaged in the conspiracy but the evidence can’t yet be charged. Another is that the person has cooperated and thus avoided their own charges. (At this point, it hasn’t been reported that any Trump Organization officials have cooperated to avoid prosecution.)
For now, all we have is speculation about who that unindicted co-conspirator is. But either way, the indictment doesn’t lay out any significant and detailed actions by Trump personally.
The flip question
There is little doubt that a large part of the motivation for prosecuting Weisselberg — or even Calamari — is the possibility that he might flip on someone higher up, up to and including Trump. That’s just how these things generally work, and The Washington Post has reported that is indeed Vance’s goal. As far back as the Mueller investigation, Weisselberg was also a focal point because of the possibility that he, as someone who has literally been around Trump for decades (since 1973), might seek to cut a deal.
Weisselberg’s former daughter-in-law Jennifer Weisselberg, who has provided evidence in the case, has gone so far as to predict that Allen Weisselberg will indeed eventually flip.
So far, though, there is little indication that’s going to happen. And letting things get to the point of criminal charges is generally to be avoided if Weisselberg had any intention of flipping. At that point, it becomes clear that you are trying to save your own hide and trading your own legal liability for your boss’s. The benefit, of course, is that it forces prosecutors to actually make good on their threats that you could face prosecution.
They have now done that, and now Weisselberg must decide how much criminal liability he foresees for himself — along with whether he has something to offer that could reduce or eliminate it, if he might ever be so inclined. Many analysts suggested the charges, such as they currently exist, were not serious enough to spur such a flip for the 73-year-old Weisselberg, who is toward the end of his career.
Trump’s team, of course, is sending very unsubtle signals, as he has before repeatedly, that he’d very much like Weisselberg to stand strong and will reward him for doing so with continued support.
“Allen Weisselberg is a loving and devoted husband, father and grandfather who has worked at the Trump Organization for 48 years,” the Trump Organization said in a statement. “He is now being used by the Manhattan district attorney as a pawn in a scorched-earth attempt to harm the former president. The district attorney is bringing a criminal prosecution involving employee benefits that neither the IRS nor any other district attorney would ever think of bringing. This is not justice; this is politics.”
The subtext: They’re trying to make you a “pawn.” Don’t be their pawn.
Trump eventually rewarded with pardons those he had urged to stand strong during the Mueller probe — despite his comments urging the likes of Paul Manafort not to cooperate figuring into Robert Mueller’s breakdown of whether Trump obstructed justice.
The difference now is that Trump has no such power to legally protect Weisselberg — both because he’s no longer president and because, even if he were, this isn’t a federal case. About the best Trump can do is keep claiming Weisselberg is a political target, which his company has now set about doing.
Perhaps the biggest take-away from Thursday’s indictments is to stay tuned. To the extent this ever touches Trump personally, there would seem to be much we don’t yet know. The question is whether prosecutors have — or will have — the goods to bring it to that level.