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The Trump Business Indictment: What We Know and What We Don’t Yet Know

Allegations of falsifying records to government officials and banks, conspiracy to defraud, tax fraud, and grand larceny.
July 2, 2021
The Trump Business Indictment: What We Know and What We Don’t Yet Know
NEW YORK CITY, NY, THURSDAY JULY 1, 2021. Alan Weisselberg arrives at Manhattan Criminal Court. (Photo by John Taggart / Washington Post / Getty)

The long-awaited indictment of the Trump Organization and its longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, was finally released to the public on Thursday. The defendants pleaded not guilty before a state court in New York, with Weisselberg led to court in handcuffs and later released on bail. As the saying goes, the higher they climb, the harder they fall—unless your name is Donald J. Trump. (For now.)

Predictably, Team Trump is crying foul, repeating the tired “witch hunt” refrain, and claiming that these charges are picayune—the kind that no serious prosecutor would bring but for the implications for the head honcho himself, DJT. Trump’s latest personal lawyer (recall that Michael Cohen was imprisoned for wrongdoing performed on Trump’s behalf, and Rudy Giuliani just got his New York state bar license suspended over his umpteen lies around the Big Lie), Ron Fischetti, complained to reporters: “In my 50 years of practice, I have never seen this office bring a case like this and, quite frankly, I am astonished. The District Attorney is supposed to be apolitical, but everyone knows that the only reason they are proceeding with this case is because it is ‘Trump.’ As far as we are concerned, this case is over.”

Whether an average Joe or Jane would have been subject to equivalent scrutiny in connection with a vast business conglomerate may be subject to debate, but it’s really beside the point. Notoriously brutal gangsters like Al Capone and John Gotti were ultimately jailed not for violent crimes, but for tax violations. Although Gotti was also convicted of murder, conspiracy, racketeering, and obstruction of justice, nothing in the criminal laws or codes of prosecutorial conduct says that prosecutors must include jaw-dropping charges in an indictment that otherwise lists fifteen counts of alleged criminal violations, as is the case here.

Like Trump, Gotti was nicknamed “Teflon Don” for his agility in evading accountability for his putrid behavior. During Trump’s four years in the White House, Congress failed time and again to hold him to account. Congressional Republicans twice refused to convict him on impeachment charges, handing away Congress’s oversight power by clearing him of obstruction of Congress and establishing the troubling precedent that Congress is out of the business of presidential oversight so long as the Oval Office occupant is from the same political party as congressional majorities. So it has fallen on states—in this case, via New York Attorney General Letitia James and her municipal counterpart, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance—to seek accountability for Trump.

According to the indictment, Weisselberg—with the help of an “Unindicted Co-conspirator #1”—allegedly bilked the American taxpayer of over $1.7 million in revenue from 2005 to 2021. Most Americans can hardly fathom that kind of income, let alone slickly hide it from the IRS for a decade and a half.

For anyone wondering whether the indictment is a waste of time—accusing the ex-president’s business merely of the kind of activity that the government should simply blink away and allow to continue with impunity—let’s review what the indictment actually claims the Trump Organization and Weisselberg did.

From March 31, 2005 to June 30, 2021 (yes, Wednesday of this week), the defendants allegedly “engaged in a scheme constituting a systematic ongoing course of conduct with intent to defraud” the IRS, New York state’s Department of Taxation and Finance, and the New York City Department of Finance. The grand jury authorized the indictment for criminal violations that include various flavors of falsifying records to government officials and banks, conspiracy to defraud, tax fraud, and grand larceny—i.e., literally stealing “property from the United States Internal Revenue Service.”

How did Weisselberg and his enablers allegedly do this? By intentionally paying Trump Organization executives and, in some instances, their family members “off the books” and misreporting that income to tax authorities, thereby enabling tax evasion and unlawful refunds. The perks allegedly included an apartment for Weisselberg and his wife in the tony Riverside neighborhood of New York City (plus utilities and parking expenses), tuition for Weisselberg’s grandchildren at a private school in Manhattan, payment of leases on Mercedes-Benzes for Weisselberg and his wife, unreported cash identified as “Holiday Entertainment,” amenities for an apartment maintained by one of his children, as well as new beds, flat-screen TVs, carpeting, and furniture for Weisselberg’s home in Florida.

Recall that back in September 2020, after a summer of COVID suffering and violent protests over police brutality, the New York Times ran a blockbuster story chronicling Donald Trump’s two-plus decades of apparent tax avoidance. He apparently paid a paltry $750 in federal income taxes the year he won the presidency, and $750 for his first year in office. Amid the chaos and death of 2020—which culminated in a second impeachment trial, a bloody insurrection at the Capitol while Congress sat to gavel in President Joe Biden’s win, and a 600,000+ death toll due to COVID-19—Trump’s stunning tax story was buried. Now we can see that it is part of a bigger picture.

The New York prosecutorial team is not finished with its work.

We don’t yet know whether yesterday’s indictment was just the first move—an attempt to get Weisselberg to crack, with more to follow—or whether the indictment comprises all the charges likely to come.

We don’t know whether or when the prosecutors might seek charges against “Unindicted Co-conspirator #1.”

We don’t know whether and how this indictment will affect Trump’s business empire, its legacy for his children, and his possible bid for another presidential run.

But amid all this uncertainty, there remains the hope that a moment for some kind of accountability for Trump might soon arrive.

Kimberly Wehle

Kimberly Wehle is a contributor to The Bulwark. She is a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law, a former assistant U.S. attorney and associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation, and the author of How to Read the Constitution—and Why (HarperCollins). Her latest book is What You Need to Know About Voting—and Why (HarperCollins). Twitter: @kimwehle.