WASHINGTON — President Trump got just two weeks’ relief from investigations into hush-money payments to tamp down his sex scandals, before New York officials picked up where the feds left off.
On Thursday, the Trump Organization received a subpoena from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, an attorney for the company said, following a report in The New York Times detailing the request for records of payments to women claiming they slept with Trump before the 2016 election.
“This is a political hit job,” Trump Org lawyer, Marc L. Mukasey, said. “It's just harassment of the President, his family, and his business, using subpoenas and leaks as weapons. We will respond as appropriate.”
“This is a beginning”
But the move underscores the potency of the legal threat posed by New York law enforcement to Trump and his inner circle, in spite of Trump’s strengthening grip over the Department of Justice in Washington and personal immunity from federal prosecution while in office, former New York state prosecutors told VICE News.
New York, they said, appears to be looking intently at whether Trump could be prosecuted.
“This looks like a more serious effort to uncover something that constitutes a crime, and actually charge it,” said Rebecca Roiphe, a former NY-state prosecutor and expert on prosecutorial ethics at New York Law School. “This is a beginning.”
A spokesperson for the Manhattan DA’s office declined to comment.
DC vs. NY
The tight turnaround following the end of the federal investigation is no coincidence, and shows just how primed and ready New York officials are to pounce on investigative leads left open by federal prosecutors, legal experts said.
“I think this is 100% a reaction to the announcement by the Southern District that it closed down the campaign finance investigation without making any more arrests,” said Duncan Levin, who previously served as chief of asset forfeiture in the Manhattan DA’s office.
The Southern District of New York, which falls under the DOJ, announced an end to its own investigation of the hush-money payments in late July following the conviction of Trump’s former attorney and “fixer,” Michael Cohen, on two campaign finance felonies — with no more charges for anyone else.
“This looks like a more serious effort to uncover something that constitutes a crime”
But Thursday’s subpoena marks the second time New York prosecutors have stepped in after the feds wrapped up.
In March, the Manhattan DA indicted Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, just minutes after his combined seven-year sentence was handed down in federal court. If convicted on those state fraud charges, Manafort could not be pardoned by Trump.
Trump’s pardon power isn’t the only presidential shield rendered useless at the state level.
Unlike federal prosecutors, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance isn’t bound by a DOJ policy barring the indictment of a sitting president, a rule stemming from an internal departmental legal opinion commonly known as the “OLC memo.”
While the indictment of a current or former president on state charges would be historically unprecedented, that might just be what New York prosecutors are gearing up to attempt, legal experts said.
“If the DA uncovers credible evidence that Trump himself broke the law in New York, I think they’ll consider it like any other case,” Levin said.
The New York subpoena zeroes in on a specific New York statute that makes it a crime for a business to keep false records, according to both the Times and CNN.
By itself, violating that law would be a relatively small-time misdemeanor. But it becomes a serious felony if the records were falsified in order to cover up for some other crime. And cooking the books over the hush-money payments may be just the start of Vance’s inquiry into Trump’s business.
“The DA may be hoping to find documents that evidence not just falsification of business records, but some other crime, such as campaign finance violations, tax charges or money laundering, which would make the crime a felony,” said Barbara McQuade, former U.S. Attorney for Detroit. “It could be that they are looking at a member of the Trump Org, like Don Jr, or at Trump himself.”
Cohen’s version of events, which has been backed up by SDNY records, suggests Vance has serious grounds for launching his investigation.
Cohen has said he was repaid in installments by the Trump Organization, under the guise of a phony legal retainer, after wiring $130,000 to adult film star Stormy Daniels, who claims to have slept with Trump, shortly before the 2016 election.
“He can say it’s a political hit job all he wants, but there’s a credible violation of New York State law”
The National Enquirer tabloid, run by Trump’s friend and supporter David Pecker, also paid $150,000 to Playboy model Karen McDougal to effectively silence her story about having an affair with Trump. The Enquirer’s parent company, American Media Incorporated, was also subpoenaed by Vance’s team, according to the Times.
In July, prosecutors released documents that showed Trump was in close connection with Cohen while the hush-money scheme was being put in place, including minute-by-minute phone records showing calls between the two men and other officials on the Trump campaign.
Trump has attempted to deflect other requests for information about his business from House Democrats and New York by claiming they amount to little more than politically-based presidential harassment — and filing lawsuits aimed at either stopping them or slowing them down past the 2020 election.
But the mountain of evidence already turned in the hush-money scheme puts Vance’s subpoena on solid ground, lawyers said.
“He can say it’s a political hit job all he wants, but there’s a credible violation of New York State law,” said Levin. “He’ll face an uphill battle not to provide those documents.”
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks to reporters before departing the White House in Washington, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019, for the short trip to Andrews Air Force Base and onto his Bedminster, N.J., golf club. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)