Now that the indictment against the Trump Organization and its CFO, Allen Weisselberg, has been unsealed, half the nation seems to think the limited charges proves that former President Donald Trump’s business didn’t do much wrong, while the other half appears disappointed that the indictment doesn’t contain more. But the fact is, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. deserves a lot of credit for proceeding the right way for the right reasons.
Half the nation seems to think the limited charges proves that former President Donald Trump’s business didn’t do much wrong.
First, his office brought an indictment that describes in painstaking detail the alleged inner workings of the Trump Organization and its apparent disdain for laws, rules or regulations that might stand in the way of evading tax laws. (Weisselberg and the organization have pleaded not guilty.)
Second, Vance did not overreach. With less than a half-year remaining in his tenure as district attorney, he did not succumb to the temptation to make a splash by indicting a former president when he did not feel ready to do so. He brought the case he was ready to bring, and no more.
In short, Vance has been strategic, smart and low-key. He allowed defense counsel the courtesy of one last meeting to lobby against the indictment. He allowed Weisselberg to self-surrender to authorities — no “perp walk” here — heading off accusations of grandstanding.
But no one should underestimate what a huge effort Vance’s office has undertaken in trying to hold the Trump Organization and its management accountable. It had to battle its way — twice — to the U.S. Supreme Court to finally extract critical documents from Trump’s accountants. It recruited an experienced former prosecutor to spearhead the investigation. And it hired an expensive forensic consulting firm to analyze the massive trove of documents that often causes white-collar cases to languish.
None of this is normal procedure for a county prosecutor’s office, and the fact that Vance did all these things demonstrates that he appreciates the kinds of resources needed to fully investigate the Trump Organization.
Pull back the curtain a bit more and other challenges Vance’s office faced come into view. Consider, for example, that other investigations of Trump, the Trump Organization and people associated with them were also underway by various authorities: the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York recently searched the home and office of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s former attorney; New York State Attorney General Letitia James was conducting her own civil, then criminal, investigation of the Trump Organization’s finances; and the IRS has been conducting a decadelong, painstaking audit of Trump.
Pull back the curtain a bit more and other challenges Vance’s office faced come into view.
At first blush, it might seem like a good thing that multiple authorities are investigating the same target. But parallel investigations are usually a recipe for dysfunction and disaster. Imagine a circumstance where one jurisdiction wants to immunize a key player in exchange for testimony, but another jurisdiction wants to prosecute that same individual. Or where one jurisdiction obtains important documents but neglects to share them with investigators from another jurisdiction.
So it was a win for Vance when his state counterpart, James, announced that two of her lawyers would be joining the DA’s team and they would work together to investigate the Trump Organization. By working out this agreement with the state attorney general, Vance reduced the odds that interagency missteps would jeopardize a successful prosecution.
The indictment has predictably been dismissed by some (including Eric Trump) as insignificant, but it may also be disappointing to many others who were hoping that Vance would bring broader charges against more recognizable names. So why did Vance’s office bring these charges now? The answer may surprise those who look for hidden agendas or ulterior motives: It was simply the right thing to do.
There’s little doubt that prosecutors hoped Weisselberg would cooperate and help prove financial and tax misdeeds by the Trump Organization, and perhaps Trump himself. So they lined up evidence alleging he accepted substantial compensation in the form of off-the-books compensation from the Trump Organization and didn’t include it as income on his tax return and alleging that the Trump Organization — of which Weisselberg was CFO — didn’t pay payroll and other employer taxes on the compensation. But despite the damning evidence, Weisselberg has refused to cooperate. Faced with losing some of the charges to expiring statutes of limitation, Vance opted to bring the charges he believes he could prove at this time.
Trump’s attorney has protested that the district attorney’s office is overreaching by bringing criminal charges for failure to pay taxes on fringe benefits. But the allegations of $1.7 million in unreported compensation — and almost $1 million in unpaid taxes — over 15 years, meticulously planned and tracked in the company’s set of double books, doesn’t look to be the result of an oversight or a misinterpretation of tax rules. The scope of the evidence described in the indictment suggests that tax manipulation was part and parcel of the Trump Organization.
To be clear, James has noted that the investigation is ongoing. In the meantime, she and Vance did what responsible prosecutors do: They collected substantial evidence of a serious crime and brought charges against those whom they believe they can prove committed the crime. They did it without regard to the expectations and criticisms of others not in their shoes, and they did it without fanfare. They are demonstrating a particular kind of courage, and we should be grateful for it.