On Wednesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James unveiled a 222-page civil complaint against Donald Trump, the Trump Organization, Don Jr., Ivanka, Eric, and a number of others involved in Trump’s business dealings in New York. The lawsuit alleges a raft of financial misdealings, fraud, and misrepresentations carried out 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 testified before Congress way back in 2019 (under questioning by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) that Trump would habitually overvalue his company’s assets. These lies were not the mere puffery of a carnival barker trying to secure a spot on reality television. They were made to secure loans and minimize the Trump empire’s tax bills.
But the specific instances of misrepresentation and fraud uncovered by James are new, shocking, and darkly hilarious. Trump (allegedly) said that his Trump Tower apartment was 30,000 square feet, when in fact it is only 10,996 square feet, and then used that lie to get his apartment valued at $327 million, in 2015, a time when only one apartment in New York City had ever sold for as much as $100 million. He massively overvalued his golf clubs, in some cases adding 30 percent to the valuation based on his estimation of the Trump “brand.” And he claimed as personal “cash” assets that were actually held by partnerships he had no distribution rights over.
There are a lot of allegations in this thing. I’ve just highlighted the ones from paragraph 15 of the 838-paragraph complaint. But, for most normal people, the idea that Trump is a fraud who lies about how wealthy 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’ll be held accountable for any of them. Trump’s apartment might be a third of the space he claims, but it seemingly exists above the law. The story people want to read is Crime and Punishment, not If I Did It.
The hopeful news is that James’s lawsuit does have real teeth. She’s asking the court to order Trump and his organization to disgorge an estimated $250 million in fraudulent profits. She wants Trump and his co-conspirator children to be banned from running a business in New York, and banned from conducting real estate transactions in New York for a period of five years. Perhaps most important, she wants Trump and his organization to be banned from applying for loans from any financial institution registered in New York for five years.
Should any of this come to pass, Trump would be well on his way to another bankruptcy, a financial status 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, real talk, Trump is never going to be “broke.” He’s never going to 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 near-endless supply of dupes willing to fork over what little they have to support his bottomless need for attention and self-tanner. Con men do not go hungry.
James’s lawsuit is a serious, meticulous, legally compelling case that Trump and his cronies committed major financial crimes, but I for one am so desperate to see Trump in the prison he so richly deserves that all attempts at civil liability feel flat to me. If Trump is found guilty and punished appropriately, these charges will devastate Trump’s businesses and basically turn his misuse of campaign contributions into 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’s committed and the atrocities done in his name. I want him in prison, and I want his 2024 campaign ads to be done during his hour of yard time each day. It’s all well and good to “get Al Capone for tax evasion,” so long as tax evasion puts Capone in jail. With Trump, mere fines, even really big fines, do not 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 do not seem to have the appetite to take on Trump. James is using the powers vested in her office appropriately, and with Trump that involves civil liability. If Trump’s financial crimes rise to the level of criminal culpability, that is for district attorneys to decide. If his financial misdeeds are also federal crimes, that is for the United States attorney general to decide.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg seemed to abandon the possibility of charging Trump with crimes for financial fraud earlier this year. Bragg, despite running on a platform of holding even the powerful accountable, pulled the plug on a potential grand jury indictment shortly after taking office, causing the lead prosecutors working on the Trump case to quit. Bragg has never explained himself, and my guess is that 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’s yet to show the proof.
At the federal level, James has made a criminal referral to prosecutors for the Southern District of New York. The current US Attorney for the Southern District is Damian Williams; he was appointed by President Joe Biden and confirmed by the Senate last October. He happens to be the first African American to serve in this role, and he also happens to be the former law clerk of 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 any other person in the country. We know that they will continue to treat Trump as a suspect as opposed to a king. Hopefully, that will be enough.