Donald Trump’s bad luck continues. On Thursday afternoon, Arthur Engoron, a Manhattan judge, gave the thumbs up to subpoenas issued to Trump, favorite child Ivanka, and Donald Trump Jr, by Tish James, New York’s attorney general. The court’s ruling follows a decision by Trump’s accountants to walk away from the one-term president and disavow years of financial statements issued by his company.
Much as the Trump trio tried, they could not shut down James’s investigation into the Trump Organization’s business practices, which could lead to a civil suit by James. Unlike a criminal prosecution, a civil action comes with a lower burden of proof for the government. At the same time, civil lawsuits can drag on – like right into 2024. Barring a stay, Trump and his two children have been ordered to appear at deposition within 21 days.
If they tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, who knows what liability may result? On the other hand, if they invoke their right to remain silent, they will likely be portrayed as criminals.
“You see, the mob takes the fifth,” Trump observed on the campaign trail in 2016. “If you’re innocent, why are you taking the fifth amendment?”
Time sure flies. And if the Trump family refuses to appear at deposition or simply stays mum when grilled, they risk being charged with contempt, a distinction presently held by Steve Bannon, Trump’s White House counselor and 2016 campaign guru.
At this moment, Trump must be sweating while his lenders have to be shaking their collective heads. How much is Trump worth and how bad can things get are no longer hypothetical issues. In the absence of operative financial statements, restructurings and bank-called defaults have spilled into the realm of the real.
As one Trump insider confided: “Hey, this might be serious.’ Could Donald Trump [and his business] be screwed? I don’t know, but I’m not as confident as I once was in saying, ‘No.”
Meanwhile, 2024 Republican presidential aspirants are likely stifling a collective smirk. Trump’s legal woes stand to broaden the Republican party’s presidential field, and for some it is downright personal.
For Mike Pence, Trump’s hapless vice-president, these recent developments may well trigger a sense of schadenfreude. It wasn’t that long ago when Trump’s loyalists came with makeshift gallows for Pence as they stormed the Capitol, and Trump said nothing to deter the mob. Instead, he demanded loyalty from his No 2.
As for Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, Trump’s troubles could not come at a better time. Trump has all but called DeSantis a coward for refusing to admit whether or not he was vaccinated. Beyond that, Florida’s recent per capita Covid mortality rate is the seventh highest in the US, and DeSantis is having a hard time denouncing neo-Nazi violence.
“So what I’m going to say is these people, these Democrats who are trying to use this as some type of political issue to try to smear me as if I had something to do with that,” the Sunshine state governor declared. “We’re not playing their game.”
To be sure, Trump’s Maga base would stick with him through thick-and-thin. The party’s deep-pocketed donors are a different story. Trump may have delivered them a trove of tax-cuts and ambassadorships, but he’s emotionally draining.
Beyond that, his antics in the run-up to the 2020 Georgia runoff elections cost the Republicans control of the Senate. There are reasons Mitch McConnell rejects Trump’s lie that the election was stolen and is seeking to bypass the 45th president.
Thursday’s ruling was scathing. At one point, the court concluded that the attorney general had uncovered “copious evidence of possible financial fraud”. Elsewhere, the judge excoriated Trump & Co for their flight to fantasy and fiction, invoking Alice in Wonderland, 1984, and Kellyanne Conway all in a single sentence.
“The idea that an accounting firm’s announcement that no one should rely on a decade’s worth of financial statements that it issued based on numbers submitted by an entity somehow exonerates that entity and renders an investigation into its past practices moot is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll (‘When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said … it means just what I chose it to mean – neither more nor less’); George Orwell (‘War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength’); and ‘alternative facts.’”
In the past, Trump managed to weather storms surrounding his finances and credibility. Trump University did not stop the ex-reality show host’s political ascent. What happens next remains to be seen.
Right now, Joe Biden’s poll numbers are in the low 40s, inflation is on the loose, and Nancy Pelosi is poised to lose the speaker’s gavel. Against that tableau, Trump poses a distraction from Republican ambitions, an unwelcome detour from anticipated outcome.