Let’s be clear: the indictment of the company that Donald Trump used to become a celebrity businessman, reality TV star and ultimately president, is a very bad development for him.
For all his denunciations of the New York probe as a witch hunt, it means he will have to devote time, energy and resources to defending his firm. It means the Trump Organization could be tarnished to the point that it loses huge amounts of business. It means the company’s founder faces a major distraction as he gears up for next year’s midterms. And it means Trump’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, who pleaded not guilty Thursday, will come under enormous pressure to turn on his boss.
And yet the case brought by the Manhattan district attorney is stunningly narrow. To bring criminal charges over the tax treatment of fringe benefits underscores how more serious allegations were investigated and discarded.
At the top of the list: Donald Trump was not personally charged (and remember, the prosecutors have his tax returns). The company was not charged with inflating its assets to get bank loans, or minimizing its assets to dodge taxes—the kind of fraud that can devastate a business. The company was not charged for funneling hush money through Michael Cohen to Stormy Daniels in an effort to buy her silence about an alleged affair with the boss. All these matters made headlines, DA Cyrus Vance Jr. has been investigating for three years, and obviously didn’t have the evidence for grand jury charges.
I’m not trying to minimize the tax charges against Trump company executives. Weisselberg is alleged to have avoided taxes on $1.7 million in “indirect employee compensation” over 15 years–which would amount to about $900,000 in fraud. The organization itself was accused of failing to withhold taxes on those amounts. Weisselberg was also accused of hiding his New York City residency and of not declaring payments for beds, TVs and carpeting at a Florida home.
Still, such matters are usually dealt with in a civil suit. If you’re guilty, you pay a big fine and repay the back taxes you avoided. Company lawyers said they couldn't find a previous criminal case of this nature.
So the limited nature of the indictment will fuel accusations by Trump and his allies that the prosecution is purely political. Vance, the son of a former secretary of State, is a Democrat, and so is state Attorney General Letitia James, who won election vowing to go after Trump.
The media are utterly enthralled by this case. We saw that with a series of potentially illegal leaks: Weisselberg could be charged this summer. Weisselberg could be charged next week. Weisselberg will be charged Thursday! (The sealed indictment was actually handed down Wednesday night.)
A company statement called Weisselberg, whose annual salary and bonuses were $940,000, a “pawn in a scorched-earth attempt to harm the former president.”
For four years, many journalists and commentators were rooting for Trump to be charged with some kind of crime. They were greatly disappointed when he emerged legally unscathed by the Russia investigation. Then there was the impeachment over his dealings with Ukraine, and the impeachment over the Capitol riot. These charges may not be as profound as they had hoped, but for the press, they will do.
The fringe benefits in question are generous: a leased Mercedes-Benz (and one for his wife); a rent-free apartment on the Upper West Side, and private school tuition for two family members. Such benefits are generally taxable (although, as the New York Times notes, the laws can be murky). They are treated as income. But for the overall case, you have to wonder: Is that all there is?
Now there is a large X factor in this case. It’s clear that Weisselberg, a loyalist who has worked for Trump for nearly half a century, has refused to cooperate with prosecutors. But these charges will ratchet up the pressure. He could still cut a deal in exchange for immunity or a lesser charge—if he’s willing to turn on Trump.
But that’s sheer speculation at the moment. So far, the charges appear to be fairly minimal. But they could have a maximum impact on the company’s founder and his political future.
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