New York City prosecutors unveiled a host of charges aimed at the Trump Organization and the company’s longtime CFO, Alan Weisselberg, at a brief court appearance.
The hearing, while only minutes long in nature, was one of the most significant events so far in the long timeline of legal action taken against members of former President Donald Trump’s inner circle.
While the ex-president and his allies derided the charges on Thursday as another political attack by Mr Trump’s enemies, the officials who spoke in court and to the media defended their actions as aimed at ending a lucrative scheme spanning more than a decade.
Here’s our top five takeaways from Thursday’s developments:
1. The charges are serious, and could result in major consequences for both parties if found guilty
Few expected Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance to issue such a wide-ranging indictment, which included 15 charges for Mr Weisselberg and several for the company itself. At the top is grand larceny in the second degree, a crime in New York state that carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison.
If convicted of all the charges, Mr Weisselberg would face massive fines as well as decades in prison, and a tax bill of more than half a million dollars. He has pleaded not guilty, as has the Trump Organization itself. But his own former daughter-in-law has openly stated that she is cooperating with authorities in a manner that would give them access to at least some of his personal finances.
2. They involve ‘off the books’ payments to both Mr Weisselberg and his employees
In total, Mr Weisselberg is alleged to have received roughly $1.76 million in unreported compensation from the Trump Organization through various indirect means. He was allegedly allowed to live in a New York City apartment owned by the company while pretending to live outside the city; had leases for his and his wife’s personal vehicles paid off; and he was even allegedly given cash for personal use listed as “holiday entertainment” on company forms.
His employees were the recipients of such payments as well, the prosecutors allege, with end-of-the-year bonuses being drawn from funds outside of the company’s payroll system and not being reported to the government as compensation.
3. Most experts agree: The charges are aimed at flipping him
The vast majority of coverage surrounding Thursday’s indictments concurred on one central theme: Mr Weisselberg is a target, but not the target of New York’s investigation.
For weeks, legal experts have speculated that prosecutors in New York have been pressuring Mr Weisselberg to flip, and testify or provide information about Mr Trump’s own finances that would incriminate the former president. That speculation remained unchanged on Thursday, as pundits and analysts agreed that the 15 criminal charges and their corresponding potential sentences was aimed at further convincing Mr Weisselberg to cooperate.
Mr Trump was not charged in Thursday’s indictment, though he was at the top of the Trump Organization for years and was, according to his former attorney Michael Cohen, in control of virtually every aspect of the company.
4. The charges do not involve the scheme alleged by Cohen
Mr Cohen made headlines in 2019 when he alleged, during questioning by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the House Oversight Committee, that the former president and his company evaded taxes by artificially devaluing his properties, including his New York golf course, the Trump National Golf Westchester, in order to take deductions on the properties.
“It’s identical to what he did at Trump National Golf Club at Briarcliff Manor,” Mr Cohen told the committee. “What you do is you deflate the value of the asset and then you put in a request to the tax department for a deduction.”
None of that was mentioned in Thursday’s indictment, meaning either that more charges could be on the way, or alternatively that prosecutors could not find enough evidence to prove that Mr Trump’s company was defrauding the state in that manner.
5. There are no more pardons coming
Up until now, every member of Mr Trump’s inner circle to find themselves the target of criminal investigation has shared one golden parachute: A presidential pardon, which Mr Trump dangled over the heads of several former top aides including Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon in a way that virtually assured their loyalty for the duration of his term in office.
But Mr Weisselberg is the first person close to Mr Trump to be charged since the former president left office, and even if that were not the case, his charges are exclusively at the state level meaning that a presidential pardon would have no effect.
The cloud of scrutiny from New York’s Democratic state prosecutors, who are highly unlikely to be replaced by anyone favorable to the former president any time soon or in the future, could create greater pressure for Mr Weisselberg to cooperate if the case looks to be heading in the state’s favor.
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