On Wednesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James released a 222 page civil complaint against Donald Trump, the Trump Organization, Don Jr., Ivanka, Eric, and others involved in Trump’s business dealings in New York. The lawsuit alleges a series of financial mistreatment, fraud and misrepresentations by Trump, his family and his cronies.
The public has known for some time about the fraud at the heart of Trumpworld. Trump fixer Michael Cohen tried his hand at Congress way back in 2019 (under Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez interrogation) that Trump would routinely overvalue his company’s assets. These lies weren’t the mere bragging of a carnival barker trying to secure a spot on reality television. They were made to secure loans and minimize the tax bills of the Trump empire.
But the specific cases of misrepresentation and fraud uncovered by James are new, shocking, and darkly hilarious. Trump (allegedly) said his Trump Tower apartment was 30,000 square feet, when in reality it is only 10,996 square feet, and then used that lie to have his apartment valued at $327 million, in 2015, when only one apartment in New The City of York had once been sold for as much as $100 million. He vastly overvalued his golf clubs, in some cases adding 30 percent to the valuation based on his estimate of the Trump “brand.” And he claimed as “cash” personal property that was actually held by corporations over which he had no distribution rights.
There are many accusations in this matter. I just highlighted those in paragraph 15 of the 838-paragraph complaint. But for most normal people, the idea that Trump is a fraud lying about how rich he is has been obvious for some time. We don’t want to know more about the crimes he committed; we want to know when he will be responsible for any of them. Trump’s apartment may be a third of the space he claims, but it apparently exists above the law. The story people want to read is Crime and PunishmentNo Yes, I do.
The hopeful news is that James’ suit has real teeth. She is asking the court to order Trump and his organization to return approximately $250 million in fraudulent proceeds. She wants Trump and his children who co-conspired with him to be barred from having a business in New York and barred from conducting real estate transactions in New York for a period of five years. Perhaps most importantly, she wants Trump and his organization banned from borrowing from any New York-registered financial institution for five years.
If any of this were to happen, Trump would be well on his way to another bankruptcy, a financial state with which he is well acquainted. He might even have to get on camera and say, “Russia, if you’re listening, send cash now.”
But look, seriously, Trump is never going to be “broke.” He will never have to get a real job or know the fear of living on a fixed income while Republicans threaten to cut Medicare and Medicaid. Trump has a nearly endless supply of dupes willing to shell out what little they have to satisfy his inexhaustible need for attention and self-tanner. Scammers don’t go hungry.
James’ lawsuit is a serious, thorough and legally compelling case that Trump and his cronies committed significant financial crimes, but I am so desperate to see Trump in the prison he so richly deserves that all attempts at civil liability seem bland to me. If Trump is convicted and properly punished, these charges will devastate Trump’s businesses and essentially make his misuse of campaign contributions his only viable source of income. And that should be enough for me, but it’s not because I want this man behind bars for the crimes he has committed and the atrocities committed in his name. I want him in prison, and I want his 2024 campaign ads to be done during his yard hour every day. “Getting Al Capone for tax evasion” is all very well, as long as the tax evasion lands Capone in jail. Under Trump, mere fines, even really big fines, don’t feel like justice.
Unfortunately for me, satisfying my feelings is not in Tish James’s job description. Unfortunately for democracy, the people in charge of prosecuting criminals in Manhattan don’t seem eager to take on Trump. James is using the powers vested in his office properly, and with Trump that means civil liability. Whether Trump’s financial crimes rise to the level of criminal culpability, that’s for district attorneys to decide. Whether his financial misdeeds are also federal crimes, that will be decided by the attorney general of the United States.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg appeared to drop the possibility of charging Trump with financial fraud crimes earlier this year. Bragg, despite running on a platform to hold even the powerful accountable, pulled the plug on a potential grand jury indictment shortly after taking office, prompting the resignation of top prosecutors working on the Trump case. Bragg has never explained himself, and I guess he won’t until it’s time to run for election again. Everything James knows, Bragg knows or could know now. While he said in a statement that the investigation into Trump is “ongoing,” he has yet to show proof.
At the federal level, James made a criminal referral to prosecutors in the Southern District of New York. The current United States Attorney for the Southern District is Damian Williams; he was appointed by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the Senate last October. He is the first African-American to hold this position and is also the former legal assistant to his current boss, Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Whether these men have the courage to do what is necessary remains to be seen. But we know that James (and Georgia’s Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis) are showing that Trump can be prosecuted for crimes just like anyone else in the country. We know that they will continue to treat Trump like a suspect instead of a king. Hopefully, that will be enough.