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WASHINGTON — Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance hasn’t spelled out the full scope of his investigation into President Trump’s financial secrets, or exactly why he needs to see Trump’s tax returns.
But there are reasons to think he’s going deep — and that he might be burrowing into a part of Trump’s family business that’s received little mention in the feverish coverage of Vance’s Supreme Court battle with the president: Trump’s golf empire.
A close reading of the court filings reveals hints that the investigation is going well beyond the relatively simple criminal case over sex and money that ensnared Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen. In a brief to the Supreme Court, Vance’s team notes that besides Cohen, their interest also arose from other “public reports.” But they explicitly point to only one: an article about Trump’s “unorthodox” approach to buying up golf courses and hotels before he became president.
Such a wide-ranging probe into the inner workings of Trump’s financial world could have big implications both for the president’s company and the 2020 election. Vance may soon be poised to answer the big, looming questions about Trump’s businesses that have puzzled even the president’s closest biographers for years. That could include information about potential financial entanglements with deep-pocketed foreign interests and the true size of his fortune. And those answers could arrive before Election Day.
Vance remains locked in battle with Trump’s lawyers, who plan to keep fighting the New York prosecutor’s subpoena for Trump’s financial records. Although the Supreme Court ruled last week that Trump won’t be allowed to shut down the investigation just because he’s the president, the justices sent the case back down to the lower courts to let Trump raise other arguments.
Many legal experts, however, say it’s probably just a matter of time before Vance gets a look at Trump’s secrets. And if he does find evidence of wrongdoing, there’s little reason to think he’d hold back until after the vote in November, former prosecutors in the Manhattan DA’s office told VICE News.
“If the DA’s office could put together evidence of a crime, it’s likely they’d march ahead with what they have,” said Duncan Levin, a former prosecutor, who once oversaw the financial crimes unit in the office Vance now leads. “I think we’ll see more from the Manhattan DA’s office before the election.”
The Trump Organization didn’t return a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Manhattan District Attorney told VICE News in an email that he would “rely on what we have stated in court papers” and declined to comment further.
Trump’s golf money
Vance’s hunt for records stretches back a lot further than would be necessary to investigate just the Cohen hush-money payoffs.
Cohen was convicted of campaign finance crimes for orchestrating payments to women who claim they slept with Trump just before the 2016 election: Former Playmate Karen McDougal and adult film star Stormy Daniels. But Vance subpoenaed Trump’s personal and business tax returns going back several years before those payoffs took place.
“The subpoenas seek records, dating from 2011 to the present, concerning transactions that are unrelated to any official acts of the President, and that occurred largely before [Trump] assumed office,” Vance told the high court, adding that his probe goes into “issues beyond those involved in the Cohen matter.”
Vance’s team also told the high court their investigation is based, in part, on “multiple public reports of possible criminal misconduct” by employees of the Trump Organization.
Then they drop a single citation: a 2018 Washington Post article about Trump splashing out hundreds of millions in cash to buy golf courses and hotels in the decade before he became president.
“This doesn't read as an inadvertent reference,” Levin said. “It sounds like a hint to those who would read it about the direction that this District Attorney investigation is going.”
That article takes a deep dive into Trump’s “decade-long buying and spending spree,” which began in 2005 and lasted until 2015, the year Trump launched his campaign for president. This was a period when Trump, who had once dubbed himself as the “King of Debt,” appeared to switch strategies and began dropping huge amounts of cash to expand his empire instead of relying primarily on loans.
Trump “expanded his hotel chain from three locations to 12 and increased his golf courses from four to 15,” reporters David A. Fahrenthold and Jonathan O’Connell wrote.
Trump’s eldest son, Eric Trump, suggested the source of the funds should be no mystery, telling the Post that Trump’s existing businesses generated plenty of income from commercial buildings in New York and licensing deals for Trump-branded hotels and clothes.
“He had incredible cash flow and built incredible wealth,” Eric Trump told the reporters. “He didn’t need to think about borrowing for every transaction. We invested in ourselves.”
Vance casts the article in a different light. He told the Supreme Court in his brief that the article represents “reporting on possible financial misconduct at the Trump Organization dating back to at least 2005.”
Slapping that article about Trump’s golf and hotel acquisitions could be an indication of the scope of Vance’s inquiry, said Rebecca Roiphe, a former prosecutor for the Manhattan DA’s office.
But Vance’s true focus remains opaque — and it’s possible they referenced that article mostly to convince the Supreme Court of their arguments, rather than to tip their hand about their investigative direction.
“It also might just be that this was the most damning public information linked to New York that he could point to,” Roiphe said.
Democrats in Congress have also been fighting to get a look at Trump’s books, saying they want to find out whether he might owe some part of his fortune to deep-pocketed foreign interests in Russia or Saudi Arabia.
The Democrats’ own Supreme Court brief notes that “illicit money-laundering schemes often funnel money through legitimate investments, such as high-end real estate, to conceal the source of the funds.”
In probing Trump’s family business, Vance is wading deep into territory that former special counsel Robert Mueller didn’t cover in his report on Trump’s ties to Russia. In fact, it’s not totally clear how closely Mueller even looked.
Mueller batted away a question about whether he’d obtained Trump’s tax returns during Congressional testimony last year, saying: “I’m not going to speak to that.”
Now, the question becomes how quickly Vance can wind his way through the court system to reach a final decision on enforcing his subpoena for Trump’s financial records — and what he’ll decide to do once he’s got them.
Cover: A protester holds a sign outside Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., Sunday, July 12, 2020, before the departure of President Donald Trump's motorcade. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)