After two impeachments, a private charity and university shuttered thanks to fraud charges and other financial irregularities, a special prosecutor’s investigation (with another one now pending), more than 20 sexual assault allegations, and a private-sector career riddled with allegations of fraud and self-dealing, Donald Trump now boasts his first adverse legal verdict. A state jury in Manhattan has found the Trump Organization guilty on 17 charges, including falsifying business information, a scheme to defraud, tax fraud, and conspiracy.
It’s true that the penalty arising from the charges—$1.62 million—will scarcely make a dent in the fanciful ledgers of the corporation. And it’s true that former President Trump wasn’t a named defendant in the case. But Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Alan H. Weisselberg, who cut a deal with prosecutors in exchange for his testimony, gave detailed and damning evidence of what prosecutors termed a “culture of fraud and deception” procuring tax-free perks and off-the-books compensation for Trump cronies and their family members.
This overall picture should be familiar to civically sentient Americans who’ve suffered through the past six years of Trump-authored lies, scams, self-dealing schemes, petty nepotism, and high crimes and misdemeanors all carried out under the family political brand. As president, Trump had blithely adopted his mobbed-up model of business success as the guiding dictum of federal governance, replete with cronyist appointments, high-profile sinecures and fudged security clearances for family members, concealed foreign debts, and emoluments violations on steroids.
For hidebound adherents of legal proportionality, Tuesday’s verdict might carry an echo of the famous federal case against Al Capone for tax evasion. Just this past weekend, after all, Trump called for the “termination” of those sections of the Constitution that might frustrate his incoherent and hectoring will-to-power—and his role in fomenting the January 6 insurrection over his phony claims of election fraud certainly calls for a punishment far beyond a nominal seven-figure fine.
But in terms of personal vanity—the only force that Donald Trump really understands and respects—this verdict is a significant blow. For all practical purposes, Donald Trump is the Trump organization, and this legal finding can’t be shrugged off. “The Trump Organization is owned lock, stock, and barrel by Donald Trump, and nothing went on there without his approval,” says David Cay Johnston, a longtime tax reporter and analyst who’s covered Trump and his properties since the 1990s, and the author most recently of The Big Cheat: How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family. “Technically, it’s his corporation, so this is clearly a finding that Trump is a tax criminal.”
It’s also a long-overdue moment of comeuppance from a legal system that Trump, like countless other plutocrats on the American scene, has gamed to his continual advantage. “This is the first serious holding to account of Trump and his companies,” Johnston notes. “Donald’s great genius has always been running his companies and behaviors out of the reach of the law. He beat four grand juries back when he was in his 30s.”
It’s also true that there’s an apt Greek-tragic symmetry to this case’s outcome: Without Trump’s insatiable hubris in play, a trial probably would have never happened. “Probably in ordinary circumstances, a case like this would have been settled,” says former federal prosecutor Ankush Khadori. “The only reason it wasn’t is because of Trump’s ego. When Weisselberg pled out, logically there were very few lines of defense left for the Trump Organization. In these cases, the company is vicariously liable—so when an employee has pled out or been convicted at trial, the company just doesn’t have much of an option.” But Trump didn’t sign off on a settlement, as he had in the Trump charity and Trump University cases—in part because the Trump Organization supplies the foundation for all the delusive ego rampages that have defined his career. “This is a man who built his public persona image of the ur New York businessman, the guy who made it big in New York,” Khadori says. “The only reason his company was on trial was because it was so closely intertwined with his ego.”
What strategy there was on Trump’s side of the courtroom seemed to involve isolating Weisselberg, Trump’s longtime trusted business lieutenant, as the bad actor here—in the same way that Trump had ostracized his onetime fixer Michael Cohen under pressure from still other legal troubles. But “it looks like the jury didn’t buy the defendant’s argument that Weisselberg acted solely on his own behalf,” says Melanie Sloan, another former federal prosecutor and senior adviser to the DC-based watchdog group American Oversight.
Meanwhile, Trump remains in the crosshairs of a slew of other legal proceedings, from special prosecutor Jack Smith’s recent appointment to lead the inquiry into the January 6 insurrection to the Mar-a-Lago documents case to E. Jean Carroll’s sexual assault suit to the election-fixing probe in Georgia to possible criminal referrals from the House Select Committee on January 6. Could the New York verdict create a spillover effect?
“I have never used the expression ‘walls closing in,’ for the better part of a decade about this man,” says Khardori. “So far, most of these probes have not culminated in the way people want, and we’re now going on six-plus years of this.”
But, he adds, “ Sometimes things do change.” A case in point has been the Justice Department’s own posture toward prosecutions of Trump—something that the incoming Biden administration and lead Justice officials had little apparent appetite for. But over the past few months, Khardori says, “The Justice Department has changed. I did not expect that change, nor did I expect that change to come about the way it did. Justice was changed by the January 6 committee, which absolutely owned the news this summer. It affected the midterms, which I also didn’t expect—suddenly people were being treated as not serious for denying the 2020 elections. And all that affected the posture of the Justice Department.”
Within this context, Johnston suggests, “the significant thing is that now we’ve crossed this Rubicon, everything else can start to move forward. We’re seeing Jack Smith is being very aggressive in putting out subpoenas as special prosecutor. So all this timidity–all this ‘Oh, no one’s ever prosecuted a former president,’ which is offensive to anyone who believes in the rule of law—that should all peel away.”
Paul Pelletier, another former DOJ prosecutor who led many investigations into financial fraud in his long career, also sees a promising precedent here. “That the Trump Organization was convicted of numerous tax frauds over multiple years is almost secondary,” he argues. “What the verdict shows is that this pattern of lawless behavior was deeply rooted in Trump’s family enterprise, making it extremely unlikely that the former president was unaware of such behavior. It also shows that ethos of Trump’s business practices, exemplified in the demonstrated grifting of Trump University and the Trump family’s charity, reflected the moral bankruptcy of their namesake. Finally, the verdict demonstrates that, in a courtroom, where the truth can’t be concealed behind empty rhetoric, powerful people and organizations can be held accountable for their behavior. None of that bodes well for the ex-president as he faces perhaps several serious challenges to his personal freedom.”
And if that’s still too much to hope for, there are the well-worn rites of political survival in Washington to fall back on—particularly as Trump’s run of handpicked midterm failures continued with the defeat of Hershel Walker in the Georgia Senate runoff last night. It’s one thing to flack for a corrupt and venal kingmaker in Republican politics; it’s another thing entirely to carry water for a law-breaking grifter who’s also an electoral loser. “Elected Republicans everywhere likely are sighing with relief in private,” says Sloan, “while condemning the verdict publicly.”