On Thursday, Manhattan prosecutors charged the Trump Organization, its chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, and the Trump Payroll Corp with engaging in a scheme to defraud federal, state and local tax authorities. According to the indictment, Weisselberg failed to pay taxes on $1.7m in income and benefits. The scheme purportedly dated back to 2005.
On the other hand, Donald Trump, Weisselberg’s boss, appears to have skated. He is not named as a defendant even though he makes a cameo in the body of the indictment. Allegedly, “personal checks drawn on the account of and signed by Donald J Trump, and later drawn on the account of the Donald J Trump Revocable Trust dated April 7, 2014” went for tuition payments of Weisselberg’s family.
Other alleged undeclared benefits received by Weisselberg included lease payments on his Mercedes, housing and cash. For the moment anyway, Cyrus Vance, the district attorney for Manhattan, appears to lack the goods to nail the former president. Relatively speaking, an elephant gave birth to a mouse.
Beyond that, Vance’s office did not bring racketeering charges against Trump’s eponymous company. Arguably if the district attorney had the goods he would have brought the most serious charges on the first go around. Significantly, the indictment did not trigger a default under Deutsche Bank’s loan documents. Trump and his lenders can exhale, a little. Right now, the prospects of forfeiture and foreclosure and the necessity of refinancing Trump’s loan packages are not staring back at them.
By the metrics of scandal, the alleged crime is decidedly underwhelming. Wrongfully taken over tax deductions are quintessentially human, let alone Trumpian. In case anyone forgot, Trump is still undergoing a years-long IRS audit over claimed deductions. The Republican base will shrug.
Likewise, giving sweetheart deals to key employees and favored others is textbook New York, a textbook that Trump himself helped write.
Back in the day, the day being 2003, a younger Trump reportedly assisted Marjorie Harris – a close personal friend of the Rev Al Sharpton – to obtain a luxury sublease in a Trump building without undergoing a standard credit check. Harris’s financials were not necessarily robust, but at the time Trump was focused on keeping Sharpton happy.
In a hyper-transactional world, tuition and cheap housing for the Weisselberg clan were rewards for years of service and loyalty. There’s a reason Weisselberg is known as Trump’s soldier. He is no Michael Cohen. Rather, Weisselberg is a limelight-avoiding accountant who has so far refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
Yet with Weisselberg taking one for the team, the spirit of Roger Stone and Paul Manafort lives on. And we know how that worked out – both men received presidential pardons.
But this time Trump is out of office and the charges stem from purported violations of New York’s penal law, not the US code. Weisselberg was released on his own recognizance. The guy is no menace to society.
As for the midterms, the indictment won’t hurt the Republican party’s chances. Team Trump and his party will be able to claim “witch-hunt” with a modicum of credibility. All those subpoenas and document productions have yielded little. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, may even want to put his presidential ambitions on hold until 2028.
A year ago, the US supreme court rejected Trump’s contention that he was immune from investigation simply because he lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Writing for a seven-person majority, Chief Justice John Roberts opined: “No citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding.”
Justice Kavanaugh, a Trump appointee, put things more succinctly in a concurrence joined by Justice Gorsuch, another Trump appointee: “In our system of government, as this court has often stated, no one is above the law. That principle applies, of course, to a president.”
In hindsight, it all sounds a tad overblown. The only member of the Trump Organization facing criminal charges is Weisselberg. Looking back, Weisselberg must be asking: was it worth it? After he was led into the courtroom in handcuffs, we can only guess his answer. Still, don’t bet on him flipping. And as trials go, this one is looking mesmerizingly dull.